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Heart of an Oak Film Review: Woodland Wonder

A squirrel sniffs a hazelnut in the 2024 film Heart of an Oak (Le Chêne)

Heart of an Oak opts for simple observation to capture the magical workings of a vast ecosystem existing in a 210-year-old tree.

Directors: Laurent Charbonnier & Michel Seydoux
Genre: Documentary, Family
Run Time: 80′
UK Release: July 12, 2024 in select UK cinemas, August 12 on digital download
US Release: TBA

In Heart of an Oak (Le Chêne), the camera begins with a wide aerial shot of a luscious woodland before descending slowly into the canopy below. As it does this, the scenery envelops the viewer in an arresting manner, both visually and aurally. We are engulfed by sounds of nature: birdsong, rustling leaves, the scamper of squirrels. From this point on, the journey that Laurent Charbonnier (Chambord) and Michel Seydoux take us on in Heart of an Oak is heavily sensory, utterly alluring, and deeply immersive.

How can a film set around and within one single tree warrant a feature length runtime? A worthy question, perhaps, but one that is answered emphatically by Charbonnier and Seydoux.

The titular tree is no ordinary oak, though; this documentary follows a year in the life of a particular 210-year-old tree in Sologne, France. Heart of an Oak explores the thriving, rich ecosystem that this tree provides for so many surrounding mammals, from mice, squirrels, various birds, right down to the smallest insects. This visually outstanding documentary is mesmerising in how detailed its depiction of this vast habitat is. Along with DOP Mathieu Giombini (Lingui), Charbonnier and Seydoux conjure up a layered and vivid world, transporting us to this ecological haven of life and death.

Heart of an Oak is wordless, and for the most part, this unobtrusiveness, untainted observance works very well. Instead of a narrative or descriptive voiceover, the sound design takes centre stage. Heart of an Oak deserves to be seen in the cinema, if possible, to fully experience the full potential of its immersive beauty. This rigid observational quality does sometimes make it easy to subconsciously detach from events—it is different from the strict, refined concentration of Gunda (2020) or the exciting, groundbreaking education of a David Attenborough documentary—but overall, Heart of an Oak’s unassuming simplicity is the perfect way to observe this secret world.

An owl emerges from a tree in the 2024 film Heart of an Oak (Le Chêne)
Heart of an Oak (Icon Film Distribution)

There are numerous spine-tingling moments in Heart of an Oak, such as when a rapid chase of a small bird by an eagle is shown, a sequence that reportedly took around two weeks to film. Other quieter moments are so intensely magical that they become comforting, tear-jerking experiences. Whether it is the soft stirrings of a group of mice waking up inside the tree or a restless boar scratching itself on the tree’s bark, Heart of an Oak repeatedly astonishes with intense beauty. As diverse as the habitat is, there is some repetition within the documentary (even at only 80 minutes in length), but the overarching magic always shines through.

Educational by observation as opposed to didacticism, Heart of an Oak ekes out every possible angle from this grand oak tree and its surrounding environment. The macro photography is stunning in its detail—so much so to rival even the likes of Attenborough and his BBC documentaries—but some annoying song choices cheapen certain moments, as does an infrequent but nevertheless odd CGI-driven time lapse. However, Heart of an Oak has so many unique and glowing qualities that it is difficult to ever fully feel the impact of these negatives too much. This marvellous documentary might, like its titular oak tree, seem like a deceptively simple, single-layered organism, but peel back its many parts, and you are left with a dense view into a beautiful, complex ecosystem.

Heart of an Oak will be released in select UK cinemas from July 12, 2024, and on digital download from August 12.

Heart of an Oak: Trailer (Icon Film Distribution)
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