Pairing romances overwhelms the best fruits of ‘The Tree’
In “The Tree,’’ Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Dawn, a mother of four in rural Australia, who copes with the death of her husband by getting her first job in years. It’s at a place that sells bathroom fixtures, and the boss, George (Marton Csokas), is somehow even sexier and manlier than the man to whom she was married. There is, of course, a catch. Aside from being exasperatingly hasty in arranging all of this, the movie suggests that the husband’s soul might have migrated to the enormous Moreton Bay Fig that slumps outside her house. And that appears to be accelerating its sprawl. The roots are tearing up the plumbing, and the wildlife in and around the tree are getting bold. A bat swoops into the kitchen. Three frogs invade the toilet bowl. It would all appear to be a mess, but the people with the biggest issue are the neighbors who want the tree gone.
This is an easy movie to watch. If only Julie Bertuccelli had more trust in her most interesting stuff. The movie is based on Judy Pascoe’s novel, “Our Father Who Art in a Tree,’’ and serves as a generic vehicle for Gainsbourg’s peculiar talents. She does all the weeping and moping you would expect in a movie like this. But she’s one of the few actors who could make Dawn’s sudden interest in a different relationship seem like an eccentricity rather than the plot device that it actually is.
The movie barely needs her because the best thing in it is Morgana Davies, who plays Simone, Dawn’s only daughter (she’s about 8), and the only one of the children who believes her father is in the tree. Davies is an eager towhead with an astounding capacity to brood. She seems like someone you do not want to cross. Her instinct and line delivery are sharp but organic (they make a cool contrast with the shapeless indifference of Christian Byers, who plays the eldest child). She also has the best material, role-playing with a classmate and turning tree-hugger when some gentlemen arrive to fell the fig. There’s a wonder in both the character and the performance that meets up nicely with girls her age in movies such as “The Spirit of the Beehive,’’ “The Piano,’’ and “Pan’s Labyrinth.’’
The movie itself could have been as complex and fully committed to its girl. It goes for something safer and more commercially familiar. In choosing between two romances - a woman and her employer, a girl and her daddy-tree - it pretends that both are dramatically compelling, when, really, one would do.