WOMAN AT WAR seems at war with itself. As a comedy tackling some challenging topics – personal and global – the film should be commended for trying to approach an important theme from a character- and comedy-driven standpoint. But the eccentricity dial is turned up just that little too high for it to make a lasting impression.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays Halla, a choir instructor and environmental activist, leading a double life. In one she conducts a choir of mild-mannered Icelanders and is looking to adopt a Ukrainian orphan. In the other, she is The Mountain Woman, tearing down the aluminium industry’s infrastructure, publishing manifestos, and evading the authorities with not much more than her smarts and a bow and arrow.
The film is obviously pitched comedically, albeit in that quite dry Nordic mode that skirts around absurdist humour. The most obvious example of this is using a three-piece band to make what would normally be non-diegetic manifest in the scene, usually when Halla faces something of urgency or import. The comedic-sounding brass wouldn’t sound out of place within the ‘Living Trilogy’ of Roy Andersson and sets a broadly comedic and oddball tone, as well as establishing musically when Halla’s resolve or purpose is emboldened. It’s a curious approach, and it’s not entirely clear if its prominence serves the film well beyond those tonal elements, especially when director Benedikt Erlingsson goes beyond mere visual intrigue to give the band members some degree of agency and interaction. At that point we must ignore this group awkwardly, who wouldn’t look out of place at a real ale festival.
“In presenting Halla’s double life, WOMAN AT WAR shows very clearly the dichotomy environmental negligence and the climate crisis forces upon individuals. She is a woman at war with herself just as much the forces of industrialisation.”
However, the film balances some themes rather well upon the character of Halla. It would be a straightforward reading to see the film as either a wry smile at the lengths environmental activists go to, or a patronising trivialisation depending on your viewpoint. In presenting Halla’s double life, WOMAN AT WAR shows very clearly the dichotomy environmental negligence and the climate crisis forces upon individuals. Halla is shown as almost absurdly skilled, bringing down pylons, drones and other industrial equipment with her bow like a Robin Hood for the climate age. On the other hand, to fulfil her personal goals she must be a model citizen. She is a woman at war with herself just as much the forces of industrialisation and cannot seemingly be both.
Through Halla the film communicates the strain the environmental cause places on citizens when institutions and governments don’t act. At numerous points Halla is foiled or countered by compromised officials, her efforts shut down by authorities, and she is reported on by the media as some sort of faceless lunatic. We are, of course, encouraged to laugh at the scenarios she finds herself in, but how this pulls her away from her more run-of-the-mill life goals is emblematic of the wider problem underscoring the true story – the cost to individuals from the inaction of nations and institutions. Even the comic cutaways to the hapless bike-riding Juan, constantly being mistakenly pegged for Halla’s actions, speak to the collateral damage inflicted on those not directly involved, and the blame placed on society’s outsiders for systemic problems.
“…but, beyond her desire to adopt a child and a personality clash with her yoga-teaching twin sister, Halla is not given much colour outside her actions as The Mountain Woman.”
WOMAN AT WAR should be commended for an approach that feels more unique than that of a typical dramatic approach to the themes, even if similar ones are explored in something like NIGHT MOVES. However, where WOMAN AT WAR trips up is in the comparative thinness of Halla as a character: her depth is sacrificed to further invest in this idiosyncratic tone. Kelly Reichardt’s 2014 feature rooted the emotional challenges of environmental activism in the flaws and interactions of a group of characters but, beyond her desire to adopt a child and a personality clash with her yoga-teaching twin sister, Halla is not given much colour outside her actions as The Mountain Woman. Geirharðsdóttir’s performance is good, but the meretriciousness – chiefly the band – could have been drawn back slightly to give more time to her and to develop a more meaningful character investment to go with the overarching ideas.
WOMAN AT WAR never quite strikes the memorable blow it wants to, but neither does it crash to earth like a pylon sabotaged by Halla.