Woman at War [2018] – A Moving and Layered Drama on the Dominant Problem of Our Times

Iceland film-maker Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War (2018) is about a dynamic, middle-aged woman’s relentless crusade to ‘save the world’, which doesn’t involve fighting aliens or rogue nation states in possession of nuclear weapons. She rather sabotages power lines in the beautiful and striking Reykjavik countryside, which carries electricity to an aluminium smelter plant. At the woman’s flat, there’s the portraits of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, leaders who sabotaged infrastructures that really got the attention of their colonizers. Yet, Woman at War couldn’t be labeled as a pamphleteering, propaganda film, narrowly focusing on the conundrum existing between climate change and economic growth. In fact, Benedikt Erlignsson’s interesting storytelling method goes beyond the ominous tone of an apocalyptic story and innovatively characterizes the inner conflicts of a determined monkey-wrencher that it’s hard to not succumb to its off-beat charms.

Woman at War, which premiered during the International Critics’ Week at 2018 Cannes Film Festival, opens with Halla (a very brilliant Halldora Geirhardsdottir) using a bow and arrow to destroy the power tower, disrupting the operations of a aluminium factory. After outmaneuvering government helicopters and police force, Halla gets out of the countryside to Reykjavik with the help of an ‘alleged’ cousin (Johann Sigurdarson), a stoic sheep farmer. At the city, Halla plays the role of an elegant middle-aged woman where she works as a choir-director. Right when Halla’s actions draw more debate on media and among public, she gets a call from the adoption agency notifying her that she can now adopt a 4-year-old Ukrainian girl, orphaned by war (she put in the application years ago).

Halla has to choose between motherhood and industrial sabotage. Before taking a decision, she goes to meet her identical twin sister Asa, also mentioned as the back-up parent in the adoption application. Asa aspires to be a sage, who is about to go on a retreat to India. Both are selfless souls, mindful of the world’s problems. While Halla believes in actions that fixes the problems, Asa takes up an inward search and attempts to fix herself through meditation. Meanwhile, Halla types up a manifesto (in which she calls herself ‘Mountain Woman’) and tosses-up copies of it from the roof of a college building. The scathing words directed against the powers that be sets off an elaborate political propaganda, by the end of which she is written off as a terrorist and as the source of all economic troubles ailing Iceland. Subsequently, Halla intensifies the crusade by bringing down power lines with stolen Semtex explosives. In the ensuing chase, involving helicopters, surveillance drones, and police check-posts, Halla barely escapes from her pursuers. At the back of her mind, there’s still the dilemma of whether to ‘save’ humanity through her idealistic endeavors or to just save a kid and enrich her life.

Benedikt Erlingsson proved himself to be a film-maker with flair in his debut feature Of Horses and Men (2013). With Woman at War, he includes a puckish sense of humor and abusrdism which clearly doesn’t downplay the serious themes at play. Mr. Erlingsson breaks the fourth wall by using the musicians (not just the music) to comment on the actions. A trio of Icelandic musicians (drums, harmonium, and tuba) – which includes the composer David Thor Jonsson -- is seen throughout the film whom Halla only sees performing the music exclusively for her. They are the witnesses to the woman’s personal war. Halla occasionally cues the musicians, this magical interaction highlighting the woman’s inner emotions and the nature of her actions. When Halla hears the news about Ukrainian girl from the adoption agency, a trio of Ukrainian folk singers dressed in traditional attire also pop up in her world. When Halla eventually catches up a flight to Ukraine, the folk singers and Icelandic musicians play together, probably underlining the synergy of her life goals. On other occasions, the mere presence of musicians provides the foreboding feel; like when Halla reaches the airport, only to see the drummer sitting alone in the parking lot. The implication of this is made clear even before the drummer plays his score.

The shots of picturesque Icelandic landscapes (cinematography by Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson) are always stunning to look at, and here the nature is one of the pivotal themes. Erlingsson pays tribute to nature by showing how it recuperates Halla (a beautiful shot of hot-springs) and grants her refuge. The director has thrown in lot of interesting visual gags and running jokes (one involving a hapless Spanish bicycle tourist). For the most part, it’s an entertaining directorial style, which similar to the works of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki balances between comedy and pain. The script written by Erlingsson and Olafur Egilsson superbly tackles the moral complexity of the central character and the big issues at its core. The writing deftly interrogates Halla’s emotions instead of projecting her simply as an eco-warrior; even her own sense of self-importance is questioned in the narrative flow. The contrasts in the narrative are beautifully orchestrated: for instance, a jolly-good last minute twist is followed up with a somber situation (of world drowning) and yet the chorus in the background emphasizes upon hope. In spite of setting off the tone of an action movie, the writing never confines itself to genre conventions. And it ends in a quietly affecting manner without striving to make grand statements or provide due catharsis. 

Overall, Woman at War (101 minutes) is a well-crafted, quirky adventure drama that also doubles up as a thought-provoking climate change movie. 


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