Halla (Halldóra Geirhardsdóttir) is a woman with a mission.
Well into her forties and gainfully employed as a respectable choir mistress, she spends her down time as an ecological avenger, waging a one-woman war on the local aluminium smelting industry, which she feels is despoiling the country she loves. With the aid of her trusty longbow and the occasional lump of stolen semtex, Halla takes every opportunity to disrupt the nearby plant, knocking down electricity lines and blowing up pylons. Secretly aided and abetted by minor politician, Baldwin (Joründa Ragnarsson), she keeps her mission a secret from her friends – and even her twin sister, Ása, a cerebral yoga instructor.
But when Halla learns that her four-years-pending application to adopt a child has finally come to fruition, she is faced with a difficult choice. Should she continue with her mission to save the planet or focus instead on her much longed-for role as a mother?
Director and co-writer Benedikt Erlingsson has created something really unique here. While he gleefully utilises all the tropes of the Hollywood action movie, Halla’s pursuits by helicopter and drone across stunning Icelandic backdrop still have a realistic tone that makes every scene feel perfectly plausible. But the film is much more unusual than that implies. A three piece band (and later a trio of Ukrainian singers) are constantly onscreen, like some weird Greek chorus. They provide a jaunty soundtrack, and also act as observers and commentators, sometimes complicit, sometimes disapproving. It’s this element more than anything else that lends Woman at War a surreal and quirky edge that you’d frankly never see in a Hollywood movie.
Geirhardsdóttir submits a fabulous performance both as Halla and her twin sister, and there’s nice support from Jóhann Sigurdarson as a local farmer who might just be Halla’s cousin. Whether you agree with her approach or not, you’ll be rooting for her every step of the way.
This was Iceland’s entry for the foreign language Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards, but it didn’t make the shortlist, which either means the standard was incredibly high this year or people just weren’t getting it – and for sure, this won’t appeal to everyone. If however, you relish original film-making with a delicious subversive tone, this one should be right up your alley.