Pi@LFF is a series of reviews made by a team of Pi’s Arts & Culture writers at the 62nd BFI London Film Festival. In this article, Bruno Reynell reviews Benedikt Erlingsson’s unmistakably Icelandic Woman at War.
Woman at War follows the daily adventures of middle-aged Reykjavik native Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). To her family and friends, she is largely an individual like any other – she cheerily rides her bike through the streets, acts as an occasional choirmaster, generally lives a quiet life in her city apartment. However, it’s Halla’s double life that is of interest to us.
The film’s opening scene shows her running across a moor sporting a large rucksack. All appears relatively normal until she brandishes her bow and arrow-style contraption and uses it to bring down an electricity pylon. We quickly learn that this modern day Robin Hood is engaged in a one-woman struggle against the local aluminium industry in an attempt to preserve the pristine natural environment of her country.
Her actions have led the press to mysteriously dub her the ‘Mountain Woman’, and the gradually escalating sabotage becomes the talk of the town. The situation, however, soon turns sour when it emerges that the Chinese are getting cold feet over their investment into Icelandic industry. This sparks a key question raised by the film: how is reconciliation to be found between the contesting issues of an environment that needs protecting, and an economy that needs stimulating. The Icelandic government certainly know which side they are on, and they launch a manhunt to catch the meddling ‘Mountain Woman’.
A smartly inserted side plot is the added complication of a potential child adoption. Halla has waited years to hear back from an agency about the possibility of adopting a child, only to hear back right when tangled in an all-out battle against the country’s authorities. Despite the fact that it’s not exactly good timing, she is determined to take the opportunity. It soon becomes a question of priorities for Halla, as we see the extents that she is prepared to go to when facing the risk of losing everything in her future.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Woman at War is its acute sense of place: the film is magnificently Icelandic. First, there are, of course, the jumpers – Scandi patterns abound. But the film’s unmistakable Icelandic-ness is also, in large part, down to the setting; the exceptional physical features of the country are well renowned, and showing Halla navigating stunning valleys and colossal glaciers undoubtedly add to the sense of adventure.
Going further, the film’s plot also feels tinged with the influence of the Icelandic Sagas. There is the same focus on societal struggles, heroic deeds, family allegiances, and the settling of scores, all suffused with the previously mentioned sense of adventure. In fact, there’s a tangible conflict always present in the film between the traditional (Halla’s underdog methods, the ancient landscape, the permanence of family), and the modern (government and industry, the police’s modern technology, the difficulties of bureaucracy).
All these heavy themes in Woman at War are fantastically offset by plentiful helpings of humour. Most memorable of all is the presence of three Iceland musicians and three Ukranian singers who lean through fourth wall as they perform parts of the soundtrack, and occasionally react in various ways to the action taking place. A simple idea that never ceases to bring a smile to the face throughout the film.
The star of the show, however, is, of course, Halla, and Geirharðsdóttir delivers the role with great aplomb. Moreover, not only does she succeed in portraying Halla’s double life, she also perfectly plays the part of her twin sister – a whole different personality altogether. Beautifully counterpointing the film’s serious themes with its comedic nature, it’s an outstanding performance that anchors a very intelligent film.