Woman at War (2018)

Woman at War ((Kona fer í stríð) by Benedikt Erlingsson is an environmental drama and a whimsical mid-life-crisis comedy.

Mother Earth

by Alexa Dalby

Woman at War

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Woman at War‘s release is particularly timely while the Extinction Rebellion climate-change protests continue to garner headlines and environmental issues are immediate and compelling.

49-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is a secret eco-terrorist. In a tense opening sequence we see her firing at a hated electricity pylon with a bow and arrow, causing a blackout, and escaping across country. The treeless Icelandic landscape is unspoilt and beautifully shot, and Halla obviously has an emotional connection to nature. Like a superhero with a day job, she’s on a one-woman fight to save the environment and Geirharðsdóttir is playing a very physically demanding role.

In her quiet city life, she’s a popular choir leader, whose sensible colleagues don’t suspect that she’s the activist ‘Mountain Woman’ whose feats are all over the media. But as her idealistic sabotage of power installations becomes bolder, the police net closes in. Unexpected help from a bluff sheep farmer (Jóhann Sigurðarson), who might be a distant relative (everyone in Iceland is connected), gives her an unlikely bolt hole when she’s being hunted by drones after her most daring attack.

Then out of the blue, a forgotten application she made long ago to adopt a Ukrainian orphan is approved. The film doesn’t deal with the ethics of such cross-cultural, trans-national adoptions. Instead, its focus is on its life-changing potential for Hella as she has to reconcile the tensions between personal and global issues. She’s helped in her endeavours by her new-agey, yoga-teacher twin sister, also played by Geirharðsdóttir.

Throughout the film, the fourth wall is broken as Halla’s exploits are regularly dogged by the absurd appearances behind her of a Marmite musical trio of composer Davíð Þór Jónsson, musicians Magnús Trygvason Eliasen and Ómar Guðjónsson on keys, drums and a rather ludicrous sousaphone. After the Ukraine news, three Ukrainian women folk singers ((Iryna Danyleiko, Galyna Goncharenko and Susanna Karpenko) in traditional costume also appear. There’s also the running joke of a hapless Spanish-speaking tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) who has the bad luck of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Halla leads a double life, trying to save the world. She has a twin whose goal is inner peace. Meanwhile, the global-warming clock is counting down, ticking off the minutes to midnight. Can either of them make a difference or find personal happiness while the world is in environmental crisis?

The film is quirky, odd-ball and its droll Icelandic humour hides a deeply serious world view from the director, Benedikt Erlingsson, whose previous work was Of Horses and Men.

Woman at War premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 3 May 2019 in the UK.

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