Australia has never struck me as somewhere I wanted to go – all barren and dusty with creatures and bugs everywhere.
But this beautifully shot film, set in Queensland, has changed my mind.
The Tree – not to be confused with the Tree of Life, also in cinemas – is a moving account of a family’s battle to cope with the loss of a loved one.
The O’Neills live on the edge of the outback in a ramshackle house.
Life is blissfully bohemian but also busy with four boisterous children who enjoy nothing more than running wild in the bush.
But their idyllic childhood grinds to a halt when dad Peter (Aden Young) suffers a heart attack at the wheel of his van and crashes into the huge Moreton Bay fig tree in the yard.
The death affects the whole family, but mum Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggles to keep herself together.
Everyone has their own way of dealing with grief and eight-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies) takes to climbing the tree.
The tree is a huge beast with thick winding branches reaching up to the sky.
It’s bows make the perfect den for little Simone who wants to be alone with the memories of her father.
As she spends more and more time hidden away in her den, every rustle of leaves and creak of a branch begins to sound like her father speaking to her.
When she finally tells the rest of the family her secret, they ridicule her.
But one by one they are each drawn outside and begin to appreciate the power and beauty of the tree.
It becomes their living, breathing confidant and they feel comfortable in its shelter.
The strength of the roots, in particular, are clear to see from the cracks appearing in the ground. Cracks which eventually threaten the very foundations of the house.
And when strong wind brings a branch crashing through the roof one night, mum Dawn knows the tree must go.
Tension builds as Simone stages a tree-top sit-in protest and refuses to move even when the tree surgeons arrive with their chainsaws.
Seeing her child so distressed, and realising her attachment to the tree, Dawn sends the men away.
But that night a ferocious cyclone tears the tree from the ground and forces the family to flee their beloved home.
Adapted from a novel by Judy Pascoe, The Tree shows nature at its most brutal.
The tree itself becomes an integral character in the story – easily interpreted as the embodiment of Peter’s spirit.
Only when Dawn starts seeing another man do the tree problems begin.
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the role well. Her depression and angst in the wake of her husband’s death is clear to see, as is her devotion to her children.
But I have always found her acting style a bit too self-aware, smug and whimsical – and this is no exception.
The stand-out performance is young Morgana Davies who plays Simone.
She portrays the raw emotion and heartbreak of losing her father with astonishing maturity, while maintaining her childish charm and a vivid imagination.
There are plenty of laughs, too, as Simone’s three brothers wind her up – as boys do best.
Director Julie Bertuccelli has made a truly beautiful film, both in its story telling and aesthetics.
I was mesmerised by the Australian landscape, every scene seeming to have a different sunkissed glow than the last.
The soothing rush of the wind through the tree felt almost real.
To my mind there is no better film than one that transports you somewhere.
By Hayley Gallimore