Woman at War is a delightful and whimsical Icelandic movie with a plot that is more serious than expected from its billing as a “comedy/thriller/drama”.
Halla is the eponymous ‘Mountain Woman’ who is an activist fighting a power company who are trying to finalise a mysterious deal with Chinese investors.
In between sabotaging power lines and skilfully evading capture from the local Keystone Cops, she teaches music and choir. She has also just discovered that her long lost dream of adopting a child is about to come to fruition.
She’s an intriguing mix of moss hugger and professional at once. Halla is committed to her cause but doesn’t appear as too obsessive despite the outwardly crazy nature of her actions. She seems to have lived a full and complex life and to have arrived at a sense of wisdom and authority that has come with her career in music.
Her sister Asa (also played by Geirharðsdóttir) is ‘out there’ too, though a near parody of a chippy/yoga/mindfulness/meditating character. The sisters think similarly but operate on different planes and their worlds collide as Halla’s plan comes into play with the deadline on adoption looming.
This is a thoughtful and lovingly made work by director Benedikt Erlingsson who made a splash with his previous and first film Of Horses and Men. There are so many small things going on in then the background and foreground that round out the craziness of the plot, Its music underscores the action with humor and love, as do some of the running jokes through the movie. It’s not unlike Taika Waititi’s films (especially Hunt for the Wilderpeople) in it handling of silliness and attention to detail.
The plot deals with big events that involve police and presidents, but at the same time it’s all very enclosed. Iceland itself is a character with much of the action taking place against cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s shooting of the beautiful, mossy and craggy grazing areas of Iceland with mountains and glaciers in the background.
The only jarring note is the last ten minutes or so when water is used as some sort of metaphor for the change in her life. That quibble aside Woman at War is is witty and funny without being an outright comedy and nor is it a drama, despite its serious themes. But there’s warmth and love in its complex and flawed characters making it a delightful hot pot of satisfying elements.
Woman at War now has a short season at selected cinemas and will also be in this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.