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Review: Heart of an Oak – “a technical and cinematic wonder.”

In 1810, an acorn sprouted a pedunculate oak tree.  Who was to know that 210 years later, it would be not only the centre of a documentary, but the centre of an entire thriving ecosystem?  Some of my favourite films this year have revolved around nature.  At Sundance, there was Every Little Thing, a documentary that followed a woman who cared for injured hummingbirds, and currently on Disney+ you can find Billy and Molly: An Otter Love Story, a delightful story of a man and his bond with a young, orphaned otter.  Now I can add Heart of an Oak to the list of films this year that has helped open my mind to the natural world around me.

This film opens with ominous, mysterious music while we move through a forest, until we arrive at the base of a huge oak tree, almost magical in its portrayal.  Within the deep crevasses of its bark and the span of its branches, we come to know the inhabitants of this majestic tree, from the acorn weevils to the red squirrel, and the family of field mice who live under the tree’s roots.  Eurasian jays are nesting there, wild boars using the tree’s sturdy trunk as a scratching post, deer grazing nearby, and ants going about their busy day.  It’s an entire community whose existence is dependent on the tree as shelter, food source, and breeding ground.

Directors Laurent Charbonnier and Michel Seydoux let nature do its own narration.  There is no voice over, no one guiding you through what you see.  But that’s not to say there aren’t stories to be found.  Whether in the camaraderie of the animals when a predator threatens them all, or in the competition and thievery of autumn’s resource gathering, or even in the breeding of the acorn weevil (set so cleverly to Dean Martin’s rendition of “Sway”), there is much to take in.  Nature is full of stories if you look for them, and thankfully in this film our main ‘characters’ have happy endings.  Perhaps that’s not the most realistic considering the ways of the natural world, but it certainly makes for a more palatable and enjoyable experience.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t tense moments amongst the cute antics of our squirrel friend or the adorable baby boars play fighting.  The field mice, who become so endearing, are threatened with flooding that is filmed in such a way it can compete with any thriller.  There is a chase scene between a goshawk and one of the jays that contains some of the best aerial cinematography I have ever seen.  Charbonnier and Seydoux do an incredible job capturing all the emotion and beauty that nature itself has to offer including some astounding macro lens work that will make even the interaction of a ladybug with a rain drop seem particularly perilous.

Nominated for Best Documentary Film at 2023’s César awards, Heart of an Oak (in French, Le chêne) is a technical and cinematic wonder.  I’d highly recommend seeing it in a theatre, where you can revel in the sounds of the wind rushing through the forest leaves, and immerse yourself in this truly meditative experience of nature.  Heart of an Oak is a film that allows you to forget the hustle and bustle of the outside world and remember how we are all interconnected.  This a film that allows you to learn just from observation alone.

There is something to be said about just being present, putting your phone down and just being captivated by a film, or watching the world around you.  Heart of an Oak is a truly fascinating reminder about the importance of each part of the environment, from the tiny ant that utilizes the down of a Eurasian jay, to the squirrel that unknowingly plants the seed for the next mighty oak to thrive.  It’s a tree that someday might be the centre of an ecosystem all its own.

Heart of an Oak is in Select UK Cinemas from 12th of July and then on Digital Download from the 12th of August.

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One Comment

  1. Having seen the film today, I can say this review is absolutely spot on.
    I’m glad I had not read this before I went – it might have spoiled surprises -but I will bookmark the review as a way to relive it under the hoped for DVD is released.

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