Review: Woman at War
WOMAN AT WAR is a film I went into with low expectations and came out of being really impressed. It makes no secret that it’s going to be political, tackling climate change and eco-terrorism and I was expecting a strident, partisan screed. Remarkably, the film decides that it’s going to be an eccentric quirky comedy with several legitimately thrilling chase sequences and a sense of nuance to defuse every one of my potential criticisms.
WOMAN AT WAR certainly wears its heart on its sleeve courtesy of director Benedikt Erlingsson and his obvious sympathies for the climate change warning that his heroine Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) embraces as a call to action. We are introduced to her on the way to sabotaging power lines supplying the aluminum industry in Iceland. Halla clearly views herself as a heroine marching off to battle, complete with her own hero’s theme. But, Erlingsson signals early that he’s not going to take her actions as objectively serious, as he literally puts the three piece band playing her theme in the shot, and literally implying that she’s a hero in her own mind, perhaps more than she is in the world’s. It’s a gag he turns to again and again that perhaps grows funnier as the movie goes along.
That refusal to deal with the story as objective reality, but moreso as a fantasy, creates a way for the audience to enjoy the film on its face without getting totally wrapped up in the specific ethics of her actions. Halla clearly views herself as a savior to the next generation, carrying them to a green, healthy, dry land rather than a deluged, wet future. There’s a terrific lead performance from Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir in the film as she punctures her action heroine with moments of earthbound vulnerability. She may carry around a bow and arrow like a middle aged Katness Everdeen, but part of her just wants to be a mother. Especially as she learns that she’s up for adoption of a Ukranian orphan girl, which creates loads of conflict. A conflict which the director communicates through a simple camera pan which turns from a television showing scenes of climate change peril to a scene of her alone in her home pining for a young child. A conflict that’s elevated by Halla’s understanding that arrest is a real possibility and her sister might not be there to take up the mantle. Also, a Ukranian choir appears in apparent opposition to her heroic little band.
If that conflict isn’t enough, the dodging of helicopters and drones in a countryside without much cover proves to be enough to provide some exciting setpieces. Not to mention, some comedic moments too as everybody is apparently related to everyone else in Iceland, and allies appear in unexpected places. And the community around her is changing with cameras popping up everywhere and suspicion hovering over every stranger. With one Spanish speaking tourist taking the brunt of the global paranoia over foreigners to comic effect.
All of this could render the film a hot mess. Instead, through a firm control of tone, smart camera work, and a wonderful lead performance, the film is able to meld the politics with humor and heart to turn it into a fairy tale infused with quirky comedy that makes its political points without malice. It’s a knife’s edge that the film walks much to its credit. You can take it seriously, but not literally, as it were. And it’s much better for that nuance.
WOMAN AT WAR is a Magnolia Picture release that should be debuting in theaters around March 1st.