Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
Stars: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada
One of the more problematic questions that gets asked of career-driven and/or successful women in interviews is ‘how do you balance your work life with your home life?’; the problem being that this question is almost never directed at a man. It’s evergreen sexism. But what if your ‘work’ is that of an eco-warrior?
Woman At War stars Halldóra Geirharðsdótti as Halla, an Icelandic woman approaching 50 who has been making life difficult for the big fossil fuel companies with a campaign of sabotage. Her ecoterrorism most often takes the form of wiping out gigantic pylons on the moors, and has become a national scandal, though her identity remains a mystery. Halla’s age and gender are her disguises; she even on occasion plays up to preconceived notions to wrong-foot the authorities. She is angry, disciplined, principled…
She also wants to be a mother; an ambition she shares with her identical twin sister Àsa.
It is with some relief that director Benedikt Erlingsson doesn’t elaborate on why the two women have chosen solitary lives. Justification for their choices in this regard are not required. But Halla’s extra-curricular activities (by day she coaches a choir) threaten to jeopardise her chances of adoption when a young Ukrainian girl named Nika becomes – for want of a better term – available to her. The looming question is which aspect of her life will gain priority.
There’s a kick to watching a middle-aged woman – in peak physical condition – committing acts of vigilantism in the Icelandic wilds. We’re used to badassery, but more often from the young, chiselled or defiantly masculine. The middle of the film strips the narrative right back to the bare bones of visual storytelling and as much as 20 to 30 minutes go by with barely a word uttered. This portion of the film recalls the sparse survivalist thrills of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men. It is here that the film adheres to traditional expectations of the thriller most directly, as Halla attempts to evade detection and even thwart the authorities’ attempts to find her.
There’s a defiantly Icelandic (or perhaps more broadly Nordic) quirk to proceedings, however. The music of Woman At War is provided by a piano/tuba/percussion trio led by Davíð Þór Jónsson, as well as a choir of three women. In a manor that initially recalls the likes of Birdman or, more distantly, Jacques Rivette’s Duelle, these players appear within the film, often in the background to the action, stranded on the moors, providing an emotional accompaniment to Halla’s trials and tribulations. It’s an odd humorous tick to Woman At War, one which often threatens to remove the viewer from any sense of grounded realism otherwise conjured.
Even more daring are the moments when these musicians become part of the scenes that they feature in. They are not ghosts in the machine. Rather, they interact with Halla; intervening in the story; challenging her. The most notable instance of this occurs when she is watching news reports about herself. Unsettled by the media’s attempts to align her with groups such as Isis, she switches them off. But the musicians take the remote and turn the TV back on, forcing Halla to confront her newfound infamy and the ramifications of her ‘work’. It’s as bold a move as the infamous ‘rewind’ moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.
Still, the jovial weirdness of the musicians jars slightly with the more straight-faced machinations of the majority of the picture. Another amusing throughline manifests as a wry comment on xenophobia toward foreign nationals, as lone latino traveller Juan (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) is repeatedly arrested on suspicion of being the real culprit. There’s a genuine comment here about racial profiling, but it is ultimately played as comic.
Geirharðsdótti’s central turn is superb and ought to be celebrated. She physically resembles Michelle Fairley, and shares her ferocity and command of screen and character. A nicely played subplot involves her growing friendship with isolated farmer Sveinbjörn (Jóhann Sigurðarson); more familial than romantic. The loose-limbed final act is curiously underwhelming, and it feels for a time as though the movie can’t quite work out how to end. Erlingsson’s choice is to exit on a prophetically apocalyptic image. As his lead character whole-heartedly believes, the flood is coming. This is an ecologically concerned picture that also serves as a fine character study. There are contrived elements to the eventual narrative, but the journey is more than worth navigating this rocky terrain.