Woman at War

Iceland 2018, 101 mins.

Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson

(Caution: These comments may contain plot spoilers)


Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is brilliant in this jet-black comedy about a woman, Halla, fighting to save the planet and adopt a child at the same time. Halla is a secret guerrilla eco-activist who is campaigning against the energy corporations that are moving into Iceland. There is no doubt about the political and economic issues at stake. Halla’s views, if there were to be any uncertainty, are underlined by the identity of the political figures on the posters that are prominently displayed in her flat.


The Icelandic actor-turned-director Benedikt Erlingsson’s well-tuned oddity is confidently and stylishly made. The striking opening scene is set in Iceland’s sparse and windswept landscape and introduces us to Halla’s power and determination but it’s shortly followed by an endearing one in which we see her in front of her choir, her face suffused with pleasure and involvement with the music.


Any audience will have to employ a willing suspension of disbelief to convince themselves that this fortysomething choir conductor can also acquire a range of materials and devices and employ them, usually in broad daylight, at great personal risk.


She is seen using circular saws to slice through girders, and a bow-and-arrow to shoot disruptive cables over the power lines. But suddenly an almost forgotten application to adopt a child from Ukraine almost derails her idealistic campaign.


There is also Icelandic music from a tuba, accordion and drums trio, and a rather beautiful singing group, whose performances turn out to be standing weirdly, in the background of several shots, unseen by the audience or Halla. The benevolent thrum of their rhythms contrasts with the sinister drone of the investigating helicopters. In the hands of a less


adroit Director, this could be seen as pretentious or self-consciously “quirky”, but this is the spirit of the ancient Iceland still maintaining a powerful presence. The photography is exquisitely realised particularly in the wide-open exterior scenes. Erlingsson shows a great flair for creating ideas, scenes, tableaux and characters and has created a narrative that rolls along convincingly.  Geirharðsdóttir is more than equal to the demands of the script and commands the screen with brilliance throughout. She receives significant support from Jóhann Sigurðarson as Sveinbjörn, the gruffly avuncular sheep farmer who lives alone with his dog, Woman, a creature of instinctive intelligence. In a country where practically everyone (allegedly) is a cousin, Sveinbjörn forges a bond with Halla, one that is as moving and embracing as this weirdly beautiful film itself. And the arrival on the scene of Halla’s sister, who does not share her idealistic altruism, is a plot twist that furnishes an intriguing late development.


The film is sentimental (in the best sense of the word) humorous and thrilling and visually compelling.


Robert Smith

(with notes from Sight and Sound)