Woman at War was described to me as an Icelandic thriller. It is set in Iceland and comes complete with thrilling scenes. But this story of one woman’s war against the Government’s co-operation with polluting multinational companies is more than just a thriller.
Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð) is an optimistic relief for the cinema of the eco-friendly saboteur. If Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018) is austere and ascetic. Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War is reflexively warm heart and gratifying. The Icelandic director approaches the gravest of themes with the gentlest of touches. He has made a firmly inclusive picture that is crowd friendly, not out of compromise. But because they have a message they must share with an audience.
The industry of Iceland is encroaching on the natural reserves of its gorgeous highlands. Halla (a powerful Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) has taken matters into her own hands. And destroying powerlines and preventing a new aluminum operation from getting settl. She’s caught the attention of authorities, dubbing herself the Mountain Woman, the enemy of big industry.
She also has great depth – having sign on to adopt an orphan many years ago. She’s just receiv word that the process went through – and must decide between nurturing a child and saving the world. If the concepts are not inherently mutually beneficial.
Director Benedikt Erlingsson provides a deft hand, with the tone moving between drama, thriller and comedy. That as he tackles the topical issues of climate change, preserving unique landscapes, and foreign investment.
There’s an obvious substance to these themes but it’s done with warmth and wit and is wonderfully offbeat. It’s an unusual comment, but this thriller will put a smile on your face.
The story opens on Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), a lone woman on the Icelandic highlands. She firing an arrow across high-voltage power lines. After creating a power outage, she’s on the run, evading helicopters and police. That until she’s help by a local farmer, who aids her escape.
It’s an intriguing beginning, and an amusing one as the band responsible. That for the film’s soundtrack appear in the back of the shot, like a live orchestra accompanying the scene. As the story progresses Halla begins to acknowledge their presence. That with the drummer on his own becoming a foreboding sign.
Quirks aside, what makes this story such fun is that Halla is the last person you’d imagine would. That set about sabotaging the local industry. Middle-age and the conductor of an a cappella choir. Hella likes swimming with her twin sister and hopes to adopt a child from Ukraine. She’s a lovely, ordinary person, who’s finally decide enough is enough.
Everything about this film is mesmerising. Incredible landscapes, the performance of its lead character, the hipster band. That is a relevant topic and the idea one person’s single-minde pursuit of what they believe in can make a difference.
Halla is the very opposite of the prevailing Marvel and DC comic hero. But it’s hard to resist a middle-age heroine running around the Icelandic countryside with a bow and arrow and dress in a knit jumper. Just delightful.
Woman at War has a fantastic running gag, as a three-piece band or an acapella trio (sometimes both). That are insert into shots, providing hilariously excessive diegetic context for the soundtrack.
It is a well-worn technique by now, but the inventiveness of their shots is hilarious. The first comes in a very well-consider credits sequence, where the titles hang over the low Icelandic skies. Our saboteur comes into frame and there’s a band in the middle of the mountains – piano, drum set, horn, and all, and they’re playing her a theme.
This is repeat, whether she’s on a rooftop or by a public pool. The film takes yet another measure as Halla is a choir teacher by trade. The music innovatively blending between grand operatic choir and bold multi-instrument statements of intent. Much like she orchestrates her singers, Halla orchestrates her eco-agenda. And the confluence of these parts is an absolutely genius fit.
There are several concerns at play for Halla. Her protest of industry would seriously put her prospective adoptive child at risk. Who has already had all their family kill in a war.
And our heroine’s not getting any younger, this may be her only chance at nurturing a young life. She’s also met with light opposition from her family, a twin sister (also humorously play by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). Whom may be too commit to her yoga practice to care for the child if Halla’s activism catches up to her.
She does have the good graces of a local farmer. She is said to be her cousin and helps traffic her around and coordinate travel between her dangerous activities. These are people of the land, totally interconnect and sacredly of the place, allegedly they are cousins until he finds an attraction for her twin sister. And then he stresses, yeah, they are cousins, allegedly.
The film’s shot with a lens for warm earth tone pastels.
It evokes Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and The Tree of Life (2011) – the latter also shot in Iceland – in equal measure. Often Halla will bury her head in the ground, she’ll try to become a part of the earth. That as though it is her spiritual grounding, and she is also its cousin. This film’s DNA is strictly embedd within the earth it loves and wishes to protect. It has such a great endless heart.
Woman at War is a right size personal opus. It’s the right film at the right time, emblematic of the zeitgeist. Erlingsson gets away with being artful and concern without ever leaning into precious or preachy sentimentality. The film may have clear, even blatant, messaging but finds such a novel way to present it, especially through its innovative fusion of musical context. That it is an absolute pleasure to watch. Woman at War is a winning production from Iceland after all our hearts. Let’s give it the attention it has earn.
Genre: Action & Adventure, Art House & International, Mystery & Suspense
Directed By: Benedikt Erlingsson
Stars: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada
Written By: Benedikt Erlingsson, Ólafur Egilsson
In Theaters: Mar 1, 2019 Limited
Runtime: 101 minutes
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR WOMAN AT WAR (KONA FER Í STRÍÐ)
This quirky Icelandic-language dramedy about an unassuming choir conductor from Reykjavik turned notorious eco-terrorist has a prodigious go-for-broke central performance from Halldora Geirharosdottir.
Woman at War takes a sidelong glance at what it means to look, sound and act like a fighter – one hellbent on serving the world’s greater good.
The film has a bone-dry sense of humour, though the quirk level is turned up just a fraction too high.
The droll absurdity of Nordic cinema acquires an eco-terrorism edge in Woman at War, a movie filled with dualities and one singular performance.