Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
Stars: Halldora Geirharosdottir, Johann Sigurdarson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada.
Outside of film festivals we don’t get to see much Icelandic cinema on our screens, but what we do get is usually offbeat, quirky and imbued with a strong streak of dry black humour. Woman At War is the latest film from Iceland to hit our screens, and it is certainly quirky and absurdist in nature. This eco-thriller is a left of centre drama about a woman doing her bit to try and save her little corner of the world from climate change and environmental damage.
Halla (played by veteran Icelandic actress Halldora Geirharosdottir) is the popular middle-aged conductor of the local choir in her home town. But she is also an unlikely but passionate environmental activist who is waging a one-woman war against the local aluminium smelter in an attempt to stop the environmental damage it is causing. Her method is to destroy local power lines, and her efforts become more audacious. Known locally as “the mountain woman” she becomes hunted by the authorities who suspect that the sabotage is the work of foreign interests. The authorities bring in drones and heat seeking equipment and high-tech surveillance methods to try and capture the saboteur.
But her activities may also threaten her chance to adopt a young girl from a Ukrainian orphanage. She has been waiting for years for the adoption approval to come through.
This is the sophomore film from Icelandic actor turned writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson (2013’s Of Horses And Men, etc), who has a deft touch with the quirky material. Once an environmental activist himself, Erlingsson easily identifies with the film’s central character and her quixotic quest to save the world. Its social and environmental message is quite topical.
One of the more bizarre idiosyncratic touches here is the way in which a trio of musicians keep popping up unexpectedly in some of the most unusual locations, like something out of a Roy Andersson film. The film has been beautifully shot by Erlingsson’s regular cinematographer Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson, whose widescreen lensing captures the harsh terrain and mossy highlands of the Icelandic setting.
Halla is a strong, defiant woman, and Geirharosdottir delivers a committed performance in the role, and she brings a vulnerability to the character as well. Geirharosdottir plays a double role here as she also appears as Asa, Halla’s twin sister and yoga instructor who seems more comfortable with the world around her. Johann Siguraarson brings warmth and empathy to his role as Sveinbjorn, a local sheep farmer who is sympathetic towards Halla and her actions. And Juan Camillo Roman Estrada, who starred in Erlingsson’s previous feature, pops up in a role as a foreign tourist whom the authorities arrest every time Halla strikes a blow against the smelter.
Woman At War tackles some serious subject matter but doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Winner of multiple awards on the festival circuit, Woman At War was Iceland’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Jodie Foster apparently owns the US remake rights, and it will be interesting to see her take on this quirky material.
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