Icelandic-Danish film Virgin Mountain from writer-director Dagur Kári of Noi the Albino (2003) notoriety offers one of the most brilliant and understated lead performances at LFF this year. Larger-than-life Gunnar Jónsson makes man-mountain character Fúsi a symbol of good-natured society as life deals Fúsi raw deal after raw deal.

Along the lines of a Scandi Forrest Gump, we see forty-something Fúsi – a man-child with apparent learning difficulties living at home with his mother – following the same daily routine of eating bowl of kids cereal then going off to work as an airport baggage handler, where he often suffers abuse from his peers. His sanctuary and hobby is recreating historic battles using model tanks and figures.

A birthday gift from his mother’s boyfriend designed to get him out and socialising puts Fúsi in the path of mysterious and troubled Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir). He also (unintentionally) befriends a confident young schoolgirl called Hera (Franziska Una Dagsdóttir) who moves into his building with her dad. It seems Fúsi’s new social circles are making a man of him finally, until grave misunderstandings occur.

This a beautifully subtle drama organically flourishes in Fúsi’s own time and at his own pace, never failing to enchant us along the way. It’s his simplistic view of life, as Fúsi sees it, that’s so utterly captivating to witness. It’s obvious that any change will upset the tender equilibrium, even though this seems vital to bring life to this melancholy existence – and give Fúsi a backbone to venture out on his own. It’s just a little too much reality in such a short space of time that causes him to learn the hard way.

We never learn too much about why Fúsi is the way he is, short of the standard suggestion of being ‘mollycoddled by Mum’. Jónsson – who won Best Actor at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival – sublimely embodies Fúsi without so much as breaking a sweat, managing to convey an array of emotions and feelings with the mere twitch of a facial muscle at times. As parties in the story try to unsettle this gentle soul, Jónsson skilfully reigns in his characters’ more ‘animated’ moments, keeping a degree of decorum and grace for such a giant.

Kristjánsdóttir makes Sjöfn playful, youthful and spirited while portraying her darker side without resorting to caricature. Both Sjöfn and Fúsi are highly believable figures we are drawn to and easily empathise with, without much effort. Although the plot could be accused of being clichéd and obvious in ending, it still has a couple of bittersweet surprises up its sleeve. The harsh wintry setting creates a heightened sensation of isolationism for this pocket of drama, though when things look up, there is also a consuming feeling of cosiness and contentment too.

Virgin Mountain is a slow-burner of emotion with some exceptional acting that makes you instantly invest in its characters. Ironically, although nothing much actually happens, a person’s whole world is displaced and reassembled in the most downplayed way in a coming-of-age film in a very long time. It’s a poem to every downtrodden soul in fact.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Virgin Mountain Review
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Fierce film reviewer and former BFI staffer, Lisa is partial to any Jack Nicholson flick. She also masquerades as a broadcast journalist, waiting for the day she can use her Criminology & Criminal Justice-trained mind like a female Cracker.