Cold as Ice

(Spain/Canada/France, 112 min.)
Written and directed by Claudia Llosa
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, Mélanie Laurent, Willem Shimmell, Zen McGrath, Winta McGrath
Jennifer Connelly as Nana.
Photo by Jose Haro, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Claudia Llosa blows some Canadian Tire money with the new age nonsense of Aloft. The film’s a minority co-pro with Spain (only 20% of the change is Canadian), so the loss is no biggie on the commercial front. Artistically, however, Aloft is hugely disappointing. The film’s one of the more prominent art-house co-Canadian efforts with frequent Guy Maddin collaborator Phyllis Laing (My Winnipeg) producing with some of the minds behind Spain’s Blancanieves. And with the viable talent of Llosa (director of 2009’s Peruvian Oscar nominee The Milk of Sorrow) in the director’s seat with Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly starring alongside Cillian Murphy and Mélanie Laurent, Aloft should, at the very least, be engaging. However, it’s as cold and unwelcoming as a frozen tundra.

Llosa certainly makes fantastic use of the snowy Canadian landscape with dreamy shots of northern Manitoba and frozen-cold Winnipeg providing the perfect backdrop for this story of mystical forces and healing powers. Most of that credit, though, belongs to cinematographer Nicholas Bolduc (Enemy, War Witch) for his breathtaking ability to harness the sun against the bleached-out snowscape. Aloft is cold and barren on almost every level, but, on the visual front, anyways, the observation serves as a compliment.

Aloft offers a frosty story of a cold mother, Nana (Connelly), and her relationship with her sons Ivan (Zen McGrath) and Gully (Winta McGrath). Nana does her best on her own, but life isn’t easy working in a pig farm up north for just a few hours a day. It’s even harder when her younger son, Gully, has a tumour and few prospects for recovery. Nana takes it on faith after science fails her and she brings the boys to visit a mystical healer dubbed the Architect (Certified Copy’s William Shimmell, either boring or too cold to bother) to give Gully one last chance. Instead of life, however, this visit brings death.

Cut to years later when Ivan (Cillian Murphy) has his own tired family life and finds his only comfort in breeding and training falcons like his father taught him. Ivan revisits the past when a documentary filmmaker, Jannia (Laurent), interrupts his solace and wants the lowdown on his story. Nana, it turns out, is also a healer.

Connelly is remarkably good with her challenging performance as the reserved and unlikable Nana. Murphy, on the other hand, is surprisingly ineffective, although Laurent is fine in an underwritten role. Aloft might be a better film if it avoided splitting tenses and lost the present-day thread entirely, since adult Ivan serves little function besides talking about his mother in a roundabout way.

The fragmentary plot lets the pieces come together at the right pace, though, as Llosa keeps the drama moving without being too elusive or overdrawn. However, the cryptic nature of the film keeps all the characters at a distance. Aloft invites audiences to speculate at the shifting loyalties that arise as Nana accepts her mystical powers and as Ivan confronts the past, but it never lets one feel the journey. It’s a cold film, and there’s minimal catharsis for a tale of healing, which is bizarre since the film ends with a strong monologue from Connelly that connects the threads of past and present, life and death, light and darkness, and faith and reality. Aloft never adds up.

The running image of the falcon is a stillborn metaphor that never really works despite the many attempts to make the film soar. It’s not really an image of Ivan’s freedom—he keeps going back to the same place—nor is it an image of his wily strength—the falcons almost infantilise him as he uses them to avoid human connection. They look nice, though, even if don’t say much, which seems to be the running theme of the film.

Llosa mostly obscures much of the emotional payoff with the inconsistent play on the mystical powers and forces that run throughout the film. Aloft wonders how much art offers the power to heal, but it never shows Nana, nor the Architect, engage with art besides twisting some twigs to make an igloo/tree fort thing. Similarly, Aloft shows very little of Nana’s powers or of young Ivan’s doubt in her skills, but it gives ample scenes of characters talking about them, which tires quickly.

The one sequence in which Aloft finally shows Nana in full force, however, is visually spectacular. It’s a scene that pulls the viewer into the freeing and intoxicating whirlwind that Nana feels up in the trees and it puts the right note of tragedy on the ice to offer a hint of something worthy of The Sweet Hereafter going on in this production. It’s the one scene that pulls together all of Aloft’s ideas and fascination with the powers of the landscape, as it fits life, death, beauty, and horror in the ice and snow that coldly stings Nana and Ivan’s fates. It’s sad to see how little comes to fruition given the potential.

Rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Aloft is currently playing in Ottawa at The ByTowne.