Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist
A woman strides across the lush Icelandic landscape, confidently brandishing a bow and arrow. Despite being dwarfed by the scenery, she cuts an imposing figure; a drumbeat intensifies in pace and volume as she stalks her prey – a huge electricity pylon. Shooting a cable over the lines, she pulls with all her might and the pylon sparks ominously. Nearby, activity in the local smelting plant grinds to a halt.
Certificate 12A 100m 29s
Director Benedikt Erlingsson
Halla/Ása Halldóra Geirhardsdóttir
Sveinbjörn Jóhann Sigurdarson
Baldvin Jörundur Ragnarsson
Juan Camillo Juan Camillo Roman Estrada
Nika Margaryta Hilska
It’s a striking introduction to one of the most original and exciting characters to emerge from recent European cinema: Halla (Halldóra Geirhardsdóttir), a middle-aged choir director with a secret identity. She is also fearless environmental warrior ‘Mountain Woman’, whose mission is to disrupt the country’s aluminium industry before it completely destroys the local environment. With huge Chinese investment on the horizon, however, the government is determined to track down this unknown vigilante, and the net begins to tighten.
Things become even more complicated for Halla when, after years of waiting, she receives a letter informing her that her application to adopt a child from the Ukraine has been accepted, and there is a little girl, Nika (Margaryta Hilska), waiting to meet her. Halla is now torn between her maternal instincts and her moral imperative to fight for her country; if she’s caught, she knows that any hope of becoming a mother will be lost.
In less adept hands, Woman at War could have become something of a blunt-edged diatribe about the way in which irresponsible commerce is destroying our planet, or a worthy David and Goliath tale about one individual taking on an entire society. But there is a lightness of touch both in direction, from Benedikt Erlingsson (Of Horses and Men), and performance that instead makes this an intelligent, intriguing character study. It is particularly marvellous to see that this woman’s war is not one taking place within herself, an oft-used trope when it comes to female-focused narratives. Halla is resolute and confident in her goals and abilities and, if the possibility of impending parenthood gives her pause, it never threatens to derail her.
As Halla, Geirhardsdóttir is phenomenal. Showing a flair for both drama and comedy, she is a character firmly grounded in thought and deed – despite the film’s idiosyncrasies, most notably its use of music. Halla’s various pursuits, physical and mental, are underscored by an evocative soundtrack – a three-piece band for determined moments of action, a traditional Ukrainian vocal trio for quiet self-reflection. These musicians not only appear in the background of the film – sitting in a field, at the side of a road or in Halla’s apartment – but also interact with their surroundings, turning on the TV, playing her piano, running from a falling electricity pylon. It’s a visual quirk knitted into the fabric of the movie, effectively underlining the fact that, like the rest of us, Halla is motivated as much by her personal emotions as by her sense of social injustice.
Geirhardsdóttir also plays Halla’s identical twin Asa, who in contrast to her sister is a yoga instructor striving only for inner peace. While these seemingly dichotomous personality traits could have been a narrative convenience, giving Halla someone with whom to have spiky discussions about maternal instincts and personal responsibility, they work well, allowing her to voice her turmoil to a person who knows her inside out. (What Asa doesn’t know until film’s end, however, is that Halla is responsible for the havoc in the countryside.)
The cinematography, from Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, is exquisite. Capturing Iceland’s stunning topography in expressive, vividly coloured, perfectly lit wide shots, often with Halla ant-sized in the centre, it makes clear exactly what she is fighting for. Everything is expertly framed, from moments in which Halla is contemplative in her apartment, scheming in front of portraits of Mandela and Gandhi, to the scene where she rides her bike past a never-ending row of windows from which a legion of television newscasters decry her activism. An exquisite shot of Halla aiming her bow and arrow at a drone hovering above her head encapsulates the film’s beauty and raw power. Both score and sound design reference everything from the natural tranquillity of the landscape to the mechanical rumble of the factories and the insistent buzz of the drones that follow Halla’s every move.
Co-writing the screenplay with Olafur Egilsson, director Erlingsson widens out Woman at War’s focus in neat, understated touches. A hapless bike-riding foreign tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) becomes the prime suspect for Halla’s actions, a nod to Iceland’s insularity. The government’s plan to use the media to paint the Mountain Woman as a criminal, solely responsible for the economic hardships that will befall every Icelander if Chinese investment is lost, speaks to the modern scourge of fake news and the insidious nature of harmful political propaganda.
Yet such messages are never overbearing, merely part of the world that Halla is railing so fiercely against. And, as we enter a blockbuster season traditionally dominated by armies of Lycra-clad marauders and avengers, there can be no doubt that she is one of the year’s strongest, most inspirational heroes.