“Woman at War,” My Favorite Icelandic Eco-fable

“Woman at War,” My Favorite Icelandic Eco-fable March 31, 2019
Halla, played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, is the “Woman at War”

Is a person sabotaging a corporate polluter by non-violent yet illegal means an eco-terrorist or a hero?  Your response to that question will probably determine your feelings about the Icelandic film Woman at War.

Its protagonist, a Reykjavik dweller nearing 50 named Halla, has posters of Gandhi and Mandela prominently hanging in her apartment.  They serve as reminders that these saboteurs were deemed destructive influences early in their lives, and only lionized later.  (For Americans, an apt comparison would be Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we conveniently forget was despised by many blacks and most whites in his lifetime, only earning a national holiday 18 years after his death.)

The director of Woman at War firmly grounds his film in present-day realities.  The target of Halla’s wrath is an aluminum factory, situated in real life in the gorgeous Icelandic highlands, and run by Rio Tinto, a corporation with a history of wrecking locales around the world.

The film opens with Halla completing her fifth attack on the massive pylons powering the factory.  Her near-capture in its aftermath is foiled only by a chance encounter with Sveinbjorn, a childhood acquaintance whose farmlands abut the factory.  Sveinbjorn selflessly offers Halla a getaway vehicle for her return to Reykjavik.

Back at home, Halla’s campaign is potentially threatened by a phone call out of the blue.  Her long-forgotten application to adopt a foreign-born child has been accepted, a four-year-old orphan girl awaiting her in Ukraine.

The bulk of Woman at War concerns itself with Halla’s dilemma, whether to continue her campaign or head abroad.  To aid her decision-making, Halla consults with her twin sister Asa, a New Age-y yoga instructor living nearby.  Meanwhile, the director keeps the suspense high, as law enforcement circles ever closer.

Co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson prevents his film from becoming preachy, both through its briskly-edited pace and his stylistic choices.  Woman at War is light on conversational dialogue, with exposition and social commentary typically delivered by televisions or radios that happen to occupy the same space as the characters.

Even more important to the film’s tone, the onscreen music is provided by two sets of performers – an Icelandic oompah-pah band and a Ukrainian women’s vocal trio – who actually appear onscreen whenever there’s musical accompaniment.  Curiously, the musicians will sometimes react to events or interfere slightly.

The Ukrainian vocal trio seen in “Woman at War”

At first, I thought this odd stylistic device might be an effort on Erlingsson’s part to distance us from the actors, remind us that we’re watching a movie, and highlight the film’s teaching points (à la Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht).  However, as the film progressed, I came to doubt this was Erlingsson’s intent, as my emotional investment in Halla’s character and mission only deepened as the film reached its final scenes.

This is helped immensely by the delightful acting of Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who plays both Halla and Asa.  She conveys both the alikeness and differences between the twins.  Especially as Halla, she communicates her character’s mental and physical toughness, resilience, effervescence, and charm.  (Her day job is choir director, and her pupils plausibly adore her.)

Erlingsson frames Halla as a worthy successor to Vikings of old.  In the opening scene, she assuredly fires an arrow over a pylon to short out its wires.  Later, she dashes athletically over a splendidly lensed landscape of moss, mountains, and blackened lava fields.  Her pullover felt cap gives the look of a helmeted warrior.

For a movie with a breezy 100 minute run time, Woman at War serves bounteous food for thought.  Of course it loudly sounds the alarm over climate change, how this may be the last generation capable of jamming the brakes on it.  The multinational corporation as bad guy underscores how allegedly representational democracies have painted themselves into impotency.

Frequent images of street corner cameras and following strangers – and moreso the grating buzz of overhead drones – offer wordless comment on the omnipresence of the surveillance state.  The news reports on Halla’s actions reinforce how talking heads and government-approved experts malignly twist the narrative on events.

Lastly, Erlingsson gently, repeatedly reminds us that we’re all in this mess together as a single global family.  Twice when Halla is holding her photo of the orphan, its viewer says, “She looks just like you.”  Her highland rescuer Sveinbjorn calls her cousin.  And non-coincidentally, Halla has a twin.  Hauntingly, Woman at War suggests that the South Asian girl, seen early on a TV screen being rescued from rising floodwaters, will soon enough be us.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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