Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree considers the point at which mourning the loss of a loved one crosses the line from respecting the person’s legacy to something unhealthier. Based on a novel by Judy Pascoe (via a script by Elizabeth J. Mars), The Tree stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as a rural Australian mother of four, struggling to get on with her life after her husband suffers a sudden, fatal heart attack. Gainsbourg grieves hard at first, but gradually begins to adjust, even starting a love affair with her new boss, a plumber played by Marton Csokas. Meanwhile, Gainsbourg’s eight-year-old daughter Morgana Davies copes by developing an unusual affection for a huge tree in the middle of the family’s property, which she’s convinced contains her father’s spirit. When the roots of that tree begin to creep into the house and cause structural damage, Gainsbourg has to decide whether it’s worth it to rip up what’s become Davies’ strongest connection to her dead dad.
The Tree is well-acted, and Bertuccelli successfully makes some obvious metaphors come off as unforced. Yes, the idea that the tree/father is literally tearing this family apart is way too blunt, but Gainsbourg and Davies sell it by playing the scenes naturally, with minimal histrionics. The problem is that The Tree’s focus is too diffuse. Had the movie held closely to Gainsbourg’s perspective, or Davies’, then the quasi-mystical nature of the tree’s encroachment might’ve had more direct emotional impact. Instead, Bertuccelli splits time between mother and daughter, and throws in some scenes from the perspective of the oldest child in the family: a teenage boy taking on adult responsibilities. The Tree’s matter-of-factness is a strength whenever Bertuccelli comes to the story’s stranger elements, but the trade-off is that the movie lacks some necessary poetry. It’s at its best when it sticks with Davies, a little girl who screams at passing trains for fun, greeting everyday phenomena with a genuine sense of joy and grand possibility.