Let Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War teach his peers a valuable lesson: Movies need more Greek choruses. In Erlingsson’s case, that’d be an Icelandic chorus, shadowing choir conductor and amateur eco terrorist Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) as she carries out her one-woman campaign against metal and mining corporation Rio Tinto. She’s a tenacious, clever foe, loosing arrows over power lines to cut electricity to the company’s aluminum plants, job producers to some, warts upon Iceland’s pristine landscapes to others, meaning mostly to Halla. The band following her as she goes about her business never comments on her actions in words, just in music.
Maybe they’re on Halla’s side. Rio Tinto’s industrial impact on the gorgeous Icelandic expanse lovingly captured by Erlingsson’s cinematographer, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, is offensive to the eye. Maybe they’re appalled by Halla’s motivations, muddied by both her virtue and her selfishness. It’s possible that fighting for a greener world in Halla’s way, causing havoc for the ostensible greater good, incurs consequences that extend beyond Rio Tinto. In Woman at War’s opening scene, her meddling causes literal sparks to fly. Lights flicker inside the company plant as workers scramble to fire off generators and avoid imminent catastrophe. Abruptly shutting off power to a building that houses a directional drill isn’t a victimless crime.
Woman at War takes no firm position on matters of environmentalism, which is to the film’s benefit. Halla’s crusade against the rape of Iceland’s natural beauty is noble. “I know these people,” exclaims Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson), Halla’s ministry man on the inside during one surreptitious meeting. “I’m surrounded by those psychopaths all day long.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, her deeds have attracted attention on a global scale, forcing the hand of other companies interested in laying down roots in Iceland to reconsider. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Halla’s civil disobedience and property destruction have put her on radars. Authorities aren’t on to her. They just know somebody out there has a grudge against Rio Tinto.
Baldvin reminds Halla, and the audience, that Rio Tinto is run by bad people, and so she remains the hero. Yet, the chorus scores her plots and plans with encouragement as much as with judgment. Halla routinely evades the long arm of the law, but justice has to grab someone, and that someone, nearly without fail, is Juan Camillo (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), a tourist with a knack for being in the wrong place (the site of one of Halla’s crimes) at the wrong time (the moment the police swoop in to arrest her).
Making the repeat arrest of a minority into a successful recurring joke takes both a deft hand and wicked chutzpah. Erlingsson has both. Poor Juan. The joke is on him, but the moral imperative is on Halla. Every move she makes has a ripple effect. The backlash is felt by Rio Tinto’s workers. It’s felt by Juan. It’s even felt by Halla, who wants to adopt a child from the Ukraine, a desire jeopardized by her refusal to put to bed her guerilla tactics and let the conflict die. In the real world, she’s made her point. In her mind, her point’s yet to be made. Erlingsson shoots each sabotage sequence with tongue firmly in cheek, the chorus looking on dispassionately while Halla takes her schemes to comical lengths.
Most of that comedy comes from Geirharðsdóttir herself, as committed to performance as Halla is to activism. She finds character in Halla’s stubbornness, crafting an endearing portrait of a woman ready to do whatever’s required to realize her goals, whether adoption or subversion. Stoicism is her greatest asset. She’s pleased with herself but never shows it. If she was a cat, she’d purr. But Geirharðsdóttir reveals Halla’s interior apart from her dogged grudge with Rio Tinto. Her determination is impressive but at times exhausting. Rather than wear out her viewers, she tips her hand. Halla’s tired out, too. All she truly wants is to rest.
Geirharðsdóttir lets that ray of vulnerability through while Erlingsson keeps Woman at War’s tone balanced between dark humor and cultural critique. The film directs a bitter, humorous eye at the complications between embracing activism and functioning in society, especially in an era of increased global commerce and tech surveillance. How much is activism worth when there are eyes in the sky everywhere and conglomerates at the ready to swoop in to undo your efforts? Erlingsson shrewdly withholds easy answers to the question, and the band plays on.
Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
Writer: Benedikt Erlingsson, Ólafur Egill Egilsson
Starring: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Davíð Þór Jónsson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada, Jörundur Ragnarsson, Magnús Trygvason Eliasen, Ómar Guðjónsson, Jóhann Sigurðarson
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.