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Godland – An Icelandic Epic, Nick Broomfield on The Rolling Stones, and Brian Jones

  • January 17, 2024
  • 7 min read
Godland – An Icelandic Epic, Nick Broomfield on The Rolling Stones, and Brian Jones

AN ICELANDIC EPIC

Godland is Icelandic director Hylnur Palmason’s third feature film. It was selected for The Cannes film festival in May 2022. Currently gauged by online reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with an 89% approval rating, based on 45 positive reviews. This visually stunning film was also especially chosen for a BFI Imax opening on April 2nd 2023.

Godland is acted by its cast in two languages, namely Icelandic and Danish. The film is a period piece set in the late 19th century. It features a Danish Curate called Lucas who is chosen by a Danish Priest as a Missionary who will journey to his first Priesthood. He takes a boat to Iceland (then a Danish colony) before undergoing his own gruelling Pilgrim’s Progress across this climatically inclement island. The journey involves crossing fast flowing rivers, treacherous marshland, and volcanic terrain with weighty backpacks and horses. Add to this Lucas’s inability to speak Icelandic to his guide, Ragnar, who claims that he can only speak Icelandic, not Danish, and we begin witnessing the undercurrent of Ragnar’s hostility towards this colonial ‘Lutheran’ Dane. Initially it’s all very Ingmar Bergman. One could even imagine Max Von Sydow playing Lucas. Godland, however, has a nearer cousin in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God set in a cold climate. 

The film is cleverly shot in a square screen format with rounded corners. A movie version of magic lantern show. This is set-up upon a ‘fake premise’ of the director’s via an opening fictionalised caption, claiming that the film was based on, “A box that was found in Iceland with seven wet-plate photographs taken by a Danish priest. These images are the first photographs of the southeast coast. This film is inspired by these photographs.” Lucas’s cumbersome photographic hobby becomes his beast of burden. He obsessively captures this journey to Iceland’s South East coast on smeared silver oxide wet-plates. All done en route to his eventual destination where he is tasked with setting-up a church to civilise the locals.

Lucas’s Icelandic translator drowns crossing a river. This triggers the beginning of his ongoing disorientation. His confusion is captured by beautifully observed scenes of happy dogs waking him in his tent from a deep sleep. The dogs run around him, licking his face into consciousness. In another waking shot, flies are seen in close-up crawling all over Lucas’s eyelashes. He opens his eyes with a fly stuck to an eyelid. Beyond these scenes are some quite disturbing shots of horses literally stumbling over mountainous terrain. All to the disdain of animal welfare groups. It’s all too real.

Collapsing and losing consciousness before arriving at his destination, Lucas awakens to find himself amid immaculate village people with pristine wooden homes.They are wise, but wary of Lucas’s religious moral certainty. All due to his colonial stance. The villagers build a wooden church for Lucas, nonetheless, before he upsets them by not performing a wedding ceremony. Carl, who puts-up Lucas in his home, says dryly, “Why did you make this journey overland? Why didn’t you just sail around the island instead?” At first he is unable to answer. Mainly because the man is speaking in Icelandic, not Danish. Lucas then suggests it was in order to photograph Iceland’s indigenous people. Of course the only ‘people’ present were his guides. At this juncture the film takes some incredible twists and turns. Perspectives change. The ending is both jaw dropping and stunning. The final scenes combining beauty and tragedy.

I would normally venture praise lightly, but with this film you have a masterpiece. 

TOP MAN IN HIS FIELD. NICK BROOMFIELD GETS THE BROOM OUT

The Stones and Brian Jones is a new documentary shown recently by BBC TV’s Arena strand. A Unicorn series that seldom airs. This long awaited film comes from ‘Direct Cinema’ filmmaker Nick Broomfield who has always operated in the investigative tradition of American documentary directors such as Fred Wiseman, The Maysles, and his former associate Joan Churchill. Here he has made a traditional archive-based BBC documentary, focusing-in on the life of the Rolling Stones founder, their former lead guitarist, who died in 1969 aged 27. Broomfield has chalked-up key films on recording artists with Kurt & Courtney (1998), Biggie & Tupac (2002), Whitney: Can I Be Me? (2017), and Marianne & Leonard Cohen’s Words of Love (2019), among others. The Stones and Brian Jones commenced in 2020, but was delayed by four years due to Covid. 


Broomfield’s film came hot on the heels of Danny Garcia’s 2019 documentary Rolling Stone: Life & Death of Brian Jones, which ploughed a similar furrow, owing a lot to the uncredited research undertaken by Terry Rawlings in his book Brian Jones: Who Killed Christopher Robin? The Truth Behind The Murder of A Rolling Stone (2004). Rawlings’ book rekindled the public’s interest in Jones ahead of the rest. Garcia delved even deeper, finding information on Police cover-ups via another associated death. Here, however, Bill Wyman is quick to dismiss circumstantial criminal claims. Wyman believes that Jones died in his own swimming pool after taking a mixture of ‘downers and alcohol’, before falling asleep and drowning. This leaves Broomfield’s documentary fully open to concentrate on just who Brian Jones really was.Interviews with Jones’s many ex girlfriends are superseded by a key interview with Linda Lawrence with whom he had a child called Julian. 

Lawrence is only heard in a voice-over throughout the film. Her voice is accompanied by a trove of home movie memories of a teenage Jones, plus early riotous Stones concerts. All licensed from family, friends, and TV Archives. Marianne Faithfull’s biographer David Dalton has made available his 1994 tape-recorded interviews with Faithfull. There are also audio recordings of the late Anita Pallenberg, made by Paul Trynka for his 2014 book Sympathy for the Devil: The Birth of the Rolling Stones & The Death of Brian Jones. Amid this, filmmaker Volker Schlondorff sheds new light upon Pallenberg and Faithfull’s three way relationships with Jagger, Richards, and Jones. Jones’ former girlfriends bring into sharp focus his relationship with his middle class parents from Cheltenham. All during a period when the ‘generation gap’ with parents and teenagers became more marked than before. Here we’re bridging the aftermath of Harold Macmillan’s, “You’ve never had it so good” ethos, but during a 1964 to 1970 Labour administration, when Britain thrived in the wake of Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’. Teenagers had disposable income. Rock Music boomed. This political background should have been in evidence here. It’s a moot point. Otherwise the storytelling is exemplary.The penultimate line of dialogue comes from an earlier BBC Arena directed by the late Nigel Finch, called 25 By 5 (1989). It’s Charlie Watts’ salient quote about The Stones firing Jones in 1968. Watts says, “He’d got much nicer just before died, in the last (two) years of his life. I felt sorry for him. For what we did to him then. We took this one thing away from him, which was being in a band

A recently discovered letter by Linda Lawrence from Jones’s father is terribly sad. Not only does it say so much about the Jones family and Brian, but that of a whole generation’s relationship with their parents, during the post war years. Broomfield neatly ends this threaded storyline with considerable weight. The words will echo for anyone who grew up in the 1960’s. Especially for those who had unresolved differences with their parents. It’s a very powerful ending. 

The Stones and Brian Jones is currently screening on BBC iplayer 

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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