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WOMAN AT WAR (2018) review

March 21, 2019

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written by: Benedikt Erlingsson and Ólafur Egilsson
produced by: Marianne Slot, Carine Leblanc, Birgitta Bjornsdottir, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson & Serge Lavrenyuk
directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson
rated: not rated
runtime: 101 min.
U.S. release date: March 8, 2019 (limited) and March 22, 2019 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

The mostly-silent opening sequence of “Woman at War” is one of the most attention-grabbing I’ve seen in some time. Co-writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson places us in the lush highlands of Iceland, where we see a commanding and determined figure tighten her bow, aim it at the bright blue sky and send an arrow attached to a cable careening over the power lines of a utility tower. To divulge why she does this impressive act would be to rob you of the entertainment this highly enjoyable environmental dramedy thriller provides. Not only does the film offer a standout performance from an impressive actress playing an unforgettable role, it also brilliantly balances a handful of genres and themes in a masterful manner.

The woman is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a middle-aged choir conductor who’s passion for the earth (specifically her place on it) has brought her to become a resourceful activist, using extreme measures to disrupt the daily local business that threatens the environment in blatant displays of greed. Her current target is the Rio Tinto aluminum plant, a churning factory that Chinese investors are eyeing that could increase the economy yet prove detrimental to the air and land this eco-warrior holds dear. With that in mind, Halla does whatever she can to physically sabotage local businesses that would financially benefit from such gain. Labeling herself The Mountain Woman, she creates a panic amongst local law enforcement and government officials as they try and figure out who the mystery terrorist is, while the media go out of their way to discredit her.

 

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As her crusade continues, unexpected news throws a cog in Halla’s plans as she receives notification that an adoption agency has approved her to become the adoptive mother of a 4-year-old Ukraine girl named Niki. It’s an opportunity she and her twin sister, yoga instructor Ása (Geirharosdottir) have longed for, and now, as she runs from drones helicopters and drones that seek to capture an extremist, she realizes how the ramifications of her acts of passion could affect her chances of becoming a parent. While she receives secret support from Baldvin (Jorundur Ragnarsson), a choir member who’s also a member of government, and Sveinbjörn (Jóhann Sigurðarson) a neighboring farmer, Halla will have to make some challenging decisions soon as her illegal plans of destruction may be superseded by her own hopes and desires.

Getting to know who Halla is, what makes her tick and why she risks everything is an absolute joy. Much of that is thanks to Geirharðsdóttir’s intoxicating work here, an actress who brings such resilient strength and endearing vulnerability to the lead character. On top of that, she’s playing two different characters, adding a versatility that elevates the film. I can’t imagine “Woman at War” without her, mainly because she continuously delivers surprising decisions as she sharply realizes Halla. The confidence of both Erlingsson and Geirharðsdóttir make for a fine match – he keeps the film humming along, incorporating whimsical humor, thrills and fierce determination, while she provides an impressive animated performance as our vigilante hero who is one with the earth.

 

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Erlingsson uses the beautiful Iceland environment to the film’s advantage, with is a no-brainer decision considering how absolutely stunning the land is. As much as Halla is part of the land, the land itself is definitely a character in the story (which the director co-wrote with screenwriter Ólafur Egilsson, who last penned the crime thriller “The Oath”) in which we often see our hero lay herself down on the dense green moss that blankets the ground as if she is listening to whispers that will guide her or hide herself in cracks the ground provides to hide her from surveillance above her. Assisted by Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson’s picturesque cinematography, Erlingsson doesn’t have to work too hard to accentuate the massiveness of the land while appropriately using it as a war zone for its crusader. The filmmaker and his crew, along with the locations they use have an uncanny synchronicity that’s utilized in a powerfully seamless way.

While there are engaging and suspenseful action sequences, Egilsson and Geirharðsdóttir always keep the focus on telling a compelling story that’s more interested in character study than cinematic spectacle. Interweaved throughout the film are news snippets and reports of ecological concerns which support Halla’s actions and back her motivations. Add to that the fact that the story is set during the 2008-2011 financial crisis and you have information that serves to fully realize the crisis that weighs heavily on Halla’s heart and mind. There are also subtle touches that indicate how far Halla has come in her journey, like the photos of non-violent activists Ghandi and Mandela she has on her wall at home. Her actions have clearly positioned her approach as something far removed from those inspiring figures, proving sometimes drastic means are necessary to get your point across.

 

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As much as these serious ecological issues serve to define the motivations of Halla’s folk hero and there are complex decisions that she must make in order to meet her motherhood desires, “Woman at War” balances the heavy with the light by injecting bits of clever humor throughout. One specific element is the inclusion of performers that add a different dimension to the film. There’s a live band (consisting of composer Davíð Þór Jónsson, musicians Magnús Trygvason Eliasen and Ómar Guðjónsson on keys, drums and sousaphone) that at times breaks the fourth wall as they silently respond to the story that unfolds around them. Also on hand is a female Ukrainian a cappella trio, that serves as something of a Greek chorus to Halla’s actions. Both provide a fun and unique way for Egilsson to take a not-so-serious to some ordinarily serious subjects.

In its provocative third act, “Woman at War” navigates into some morally challenging waters, which makes it an even more engaging viewing experience. Egilsson doesn’t hold your hand, giving you plenty of space to think about it all on your own.

Reminiscent of a John Sayles film with Wes Anderson whimsy added to the mix,
“Woman at War” is without a doubt a film to champion. It’s one of those films you just immediately want to see again and might even become a go-to favorite in years to come. It’s the kind of film that warrants positive word-of-mouth, not just because it’s wonderful, but because it elicits that all too rare feeling you get when you’ve just watched a terrific film through and through and you’re simply compelled to tell everyone you know about it.

My heart sank and head began to ache when I read that Jodie Foster would be directing and starring in an English remake. All the more reason to champion this film.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

 

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