WOMAN AT WAR – Review
In the Icelandic film WOMAN AT WAR, a lively, independent middle-aged woman named Halla (Hallora Geirhardsdottir) lives a double life: as choral director with a secret identity as an environmental activist known only as “Woman of the Mountain.” In her secret identity, Halla uses her skill with a bow, like a real-life Katniss Everdeen, to knock out power lines. Her goal is to disable an aluminum smelter owned by multinational corporations, who plan to bring in more polluting heavy industry to Iceland.
After one attack on the power lines, Halla nimbly makes her escape across a starkly beautiful landscape. She passes by the three-piece band that has been providing the music for her daring action, although she doesn’t seem to see them. The police, hunting for the saboteur, stop a hapless Spanish-speaking bicyclist who happens into the area. When the young bicyclist tells them he’s a tourist, the police snap back that this is not a “tourist area” and arrest him. Meanwhile, Halla makes her escape with a little help from a sod farmer and his dog named Woman.
Quirky, yes, but this comedy/drama/thriller also has a lot of heart and considerable entertainment. Nordic countries have a knack for this kind of film – quirky, darkly comedic, slightly surreal, but with underlying serious meaning, and it seems that knack extends to Iceland.
WOMAN AT WAR features very nice photography that highlights the natural beauty of the Icelandic landscape, as well as its attractive modern architecture. There is a lot of music in this film, provided by that band that keeps popping up along with a trio of female singers in traditional garb. The musicians seem to follow Halla around, unseen by her or anyone else.
When next we see Halla, she looks totally different. Elegantly dressed, she arrives at a sunlight-filled, high-ceiling hall in a community center to lead the rehearsal of a community choir.
Halla is an idealist, whose sunny apartment’s walls are adorned with pictures of Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. Turns out, she has done this kind of thing more than once, and she is not alone in her clandestine efforts to derail the efforts of a global corporation to partner with the Icelandic government to bring in more heavy industry. Even some government officials are are part of her environmental push-back.
As her efforts have escalated from petty vandalism to industrial sabotage, she is careful that no one is injured and only the multinational corporation behind the aluminum plant she opposes suffers financially, although some people are inconvenienced. She believes she wants what is best for her country and the global environment, and that what she is doing will help. The plan is to slow down the joint multinational-governmental effort, while building popular opposition.
But things do not go as planned, and life adds complications. The film is one that continually takes viewers by surprise, with unexpected warm and poignancy. Halla’s supreme confidence in herself and what she is doing it shaken by unforeseen events, making her re-evaluate life view.
This is a well-crafted film with sure direction by Benedikt Erlingsson. It is also lifted by magnificent cinematography, and a part thriller, part personal drama story, that is sprinkled generously with dry humor. It is the kind of film that never goes where you expect yet takes you on a rewarding journey.
One of the strengths of this film is Hallora Geirhardsdottir in a double role as Halla and her twin sister. Geirhardsdottir’s sensitive performance takes us inside the head of a woman driven by a cause who goes on a personal journey that shakes up her life yet brings her to a life-affirming place. The rest of the cast are good as well but the greatest weight falls on Geirhardsdottir, and she is splendid.
Nothing quite goes according to Halla’s plan nor according to our expectations, which are often upended until WOMAN AT WAR makes its way to its surprising yet satisfying conclusion.
WOMAN AT WAR, in Icelandic with English subtitles, opens Friday, March 15, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.
RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars