Film review: Woman At War a welcome addition to frontline of cinema

Halldora Geirharosdottir as Halla in Woman at War.
Halldora Geirharosdottir as Halla in Woman at War.

Woman at War (M) (Icelandic with English subtitles)

Directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson

Starring: Halldora Geirharosdottir, Johann Siguroarson, Jorundur Ragnarsson

4.5/5 stars

In cinemas now

Reviewed by: Martin Turner

THE biggest compliment I can give to Benedikt Erlingsson’s revelatory Woman at War is trying to imagine how much of a hash Hollywood would make of such a skilfully conceived story.

With a central premise of a woman leading a double life as a highly effective eco-terrorist with a bow and arrow, she would be transformed to a 30-something, superbly coiffed, CIA-trained operative, possibly having gained superpowers in a nuclear accident, skilled in all forms of combat and counter-intelligence strategies, a sexy glasses-wearing librarian in her spare time.

Instead, we have Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), an earthy, spunky 50-year-old exuding confidence in her own abilities and convictions.

Choir leader in town, out on the Icelandic Highlands she’s a home-grown eco-warrior, taking on the industrial multinationals to protect generations to come.

A media sensation, she’s been dubbed the Mountain Woman by the media.

There’s something thrilling about a thriller with international scope conducted at such a human level. Her mysterious co-conspirator, Baldvin (Jorundur Ragnarsson), makes it clear the stakes are high, with China among those affected. Let’s face it, the biggest crime in our connected world is breaking the chain of big business.

This appears to be Erlingsson’s concern: somehow putting agency against seemingly inevitable forces in the hands of capable but limited individuals. It’s one in the eye for keyboard warriors; indeed, Halla is prone to using a typewriter when required. He also employs a three-man folk band and Ukrainian choir to take part in Halla’s adventures, popping up in any number of scenarios. She is a musical woman, so why wouldn’t her travails and triumphs not have a personal soundtrack?

Amongst this mayhem, she’s just found out a long-cherished goal is being fulfilled: she’s been selected to adopt a Ukrainian orphan. Again, a wider conflict encroaches through the fall-out from war in the Ukraine, putting all sorts of internal conflicts in play.

In the meantime, she wants to make one more statement to fulfil her commitment to the cause.

Along the way there’s humour too; look out for the hapless tourist who gets arrested in unwitting close proximity to Halla on several occasions.

Geirharosdottir also plays twin sister Asa, whose role becomes a crucial plot device. But it’s Halla that’s riveting. She is such a complete and fearless person. Halla can be beaten but her spirit is as strong as wire.

This is, similarly, a remarkably complete piece of cinema – expansive, personal, defying any possible expectations, ultimately triumphant. The war is won.