Benedikt Erlingsson/ Iceland France Ukraine/ 2018/ 96 mins
@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 24 May 2019
Climate change and its effects have become increasingly urgent subjects once again, particularly with the rise to prominence of Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion movement. Another take on environmentalism arriving from Scandinavia is that of Benedikt Erlingsson with Woman at War, the kind of absurdist, downbeat and deadpan tragi-comedy you might have come to expect from the region that brought the World Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson. Like Extinction Rebellion, Woman at War highlights the impact that individuals can have, although one rather doubts the admirable Fröken Thunberg is followed around by her own hipster Oompah band that only she can see.
We first meet Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), the film’s protagonist as she brings down a power line providing electricity to a huge aluminium smelting plant. After a resourceful escape from an investigating helicopter, she slots back into her normal day job as a choir instructor. How does this crusading enviro-anarchist evade the authorities? She has the infallible disguise of being an unassuming middle-aged woman. Even this won’t keep the Powers-That-Be off her back forever, especially as she escalates the scale of her targets and publishes a manifesto that quickly goes viral. Her personal and political lives collide tectonically when an almost-forgotten application to adopt a child from Ukraine is unexpectedly approved, and she is forced to choose between her own happiness and her devotion to her cause.
The success or otherwise will come down to the viewer’s stomach for the almost aggressive whimsy Erlingsson adds to the film. Some will feel his frequent use of the trio of musicians as both score and bemused Greek chorus to be a dilution of the message; a deadpan wink at the audience that Halla’s crusade may not be the most sane. Even if this tricksy Birdman-like device sounds like your thing (tonally it comes across like that of an even drier Scandi Wes Anderson), and it is initially very funny, it is undeniably overused and is eventually and unavoidably to the film’s detriment.
Happily, Geirharðsdóttir’s performance keeps the balance firmly in credit. She gives the film a necessary anchor in reality to offset the constant shattering of the fourth wall, favouring a quiet and stoic determination in her endeavours. She gets to be a little broader as Halla’s twin Ása, a more spiritual kind of Earth Mother, and both the technical aspects and the acting skills of Geirharðsdóttir are seamless as the sisters interact onscreen together.
As a thriller, Woman at War is unlikely to get the pulse racing. As a comedy, it’s likely to wring the odd wry chuckle. It functions far better as an offbeat and ramshackle character study that stops short of waving its larger environmental concerns at the crowd like a scrawled placard. It rather keeps its message and the methods of its protagonist distinct, and is all the better for it. A few contrivances and an overuse of gimmickry aside, Woman at War is a strange and satisfying comedy drama with cinematography that loves the bracing nature of Iceland as much as its heroine does.