Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is brilliant in this jet-black comedy about a woman fighting to save the planet and adopt a child at the same time
To describe Benedikt Erlingsson’s sense of humour as “dry” is a bit like saying that things can get “chilly” as we get up towards the Arctic circle. Having conquered the theatre stages and TV screens of Iceland as a writer, director and performer, Erlingsson turned to feature films in 2013, where his brand of deadpan tragicomic humour once again struck a national nerve. His directorial feature debut, Of Horses and Men, earned several Icelandic academy Edda awards as it veered from quirky observation to bleak contemplation via a string of arrestingly surreal vignettes including an accidental human/equine three-way, and the sight of someone being pulled out of the body of a frozen horse.
Like its dramatic predecessor, Erlingsson’s latest offering was Iceland’s official submission for the foreign language film Oscar, although it once again failed to make the shortlist. (To date, Children of Nature by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, who produced Of Horses and Men, remains Iceland’s only nomination in this category.) Yet amid the jet-black comedy of Woman at War, which takes as its catastrophic subject matter the despoliation of planet Earth, there is a warmth, wit and wisdom that transcend national and cultural boundaries, making this a truly universal treat.
We open amid the breathtaking beauty of rural Iceland, spectacularly captured by cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, who worked such strange magic on Of Horses and Men. Here, an eco-warrior battling big industries under her “Mountain Woman” alias fires an arrow over a power line, causing electricity cuts and short-circuiting government plans to build a new aluminium smelter. This is Halla, a bike-riding environmental guerrilla, magnificently played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who combines the athletic physicality of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt with the kaleidoscopic character depth and subtlety of Liv Ullmann or Greta Garbo.
When not secretly holding heartless industrialists to ransom, Halla leads a local choir, producing harmonious songs that offer a choral counterpoint to the increasingly discordant strains of modern life. But along with saving mother Earth, Halla is also in the process of attempting to adopt a child, a lengthy procedure brought to an unexpected head when a Ukrainian orphan finds herself in dire need of a home. Can Halla continue to wage environmental war while taking on the mantle of loving mother? Or will the authorities catch up with her clandestine activities before she gets to fulfil her dreams?
Aware of the “festival favourite” label that was attached to Of Horses and Men, Erlingsson has sardonically described Woman at War as a “mainstream blockbuster story for everyone kind of film… a heroic tale set in our world of imminent threat”. It’s a playful description of a subversive romp that splendidly overturns action-movie cliches, putting a DIY twist on Mission: Impossible riffs, presenting its life-or-death struggles in thrillingly offbeat fashion.
Erlingsson cites real-life environmentalists such as Berta Cáceres and Yolanda Maturana as inspirational figures, but his story has a more mythic feel, incorporating fable-like elements casting Halla as Artemis, Greek goddess of the wilderness. That timeless theme is brilliantly emphasised by Erlingsson’s adventurous use of on-screen musicians, whose incidental accompaniments serve as a kind of Greek chorus, mediating between the action and the audience. There’s a circus-like element to the three-piece band that follows Halla on her quest, drums, accordion and sousaphone at the ready. Like escapees from the 2015 documentary The Show of Shows (which Erlingsson made in conjunction with Sheffield’s National Fairground and Circus Archive), this rag-tag band seems to embody the sound of Halla’s warrior instincts. In contrast to its tense, rhythmic alarums, a keening Ukrainian choir offers melancholy counterpoint, instruments and voices (male and female respectively) dramatising the different elements of our heroine’s divided soul. How fitting that Halla should have a twin sister, further emphasising her dual nature.
While Erlingsson acknowledges the theatrical effect of seeing out-of-context instruments played on rooftops and mountainsides, or finding colourfully head-dressed singers serenading characters on lonely roads, there’s actually nothing distancing or alienating about this dramatic device. On the contrary, I found myself drawn deeper into Halla’s world by the presence of her muses, becoming even more immersed in her mission as nail-biting tension dances with absurdist invention.
Geirharðsdóttir commands the screen throughout, but she receives significant support from Jóhann Sigurðarson as Sveinbjörn, the gruffly avuncular sheep farmer who lives alone with his dog, Woman. In a country where practically everyone is a cousin, Sveinbjörn forges a unexpected bond with Halla, one that is as moving and embracing as this weirdly beautiful film itself.
Mark Kermode, Guardian