I have to say that I’m not really familiar with Icelandic cinema. I’ve heard about some prominent Icelandic films like Of Horses and Men and Rams, but I’ve never had the chance to see them. So, when I found an opportunity to watch Woman at War, which I’d heard great things about, I decided to give it a go and I’m glad I did. I found this to be a powerful and funny film that does a great job at representing the way people are reacting to the ongoing climate emergency.
The film concerns Halla, a choir conductor in Iceland who is also an environmental activist, taking down the power lines surrounding an aluminium plant to encourage more concern for the environment and to prevent environmentally damaging deals between the Icelandic and Chinese governments. One day, Halla gets a letter saying that an application she made several years prior to adopt a child has been accepted and she’s given the chance to adopt a Ukranian refugee. After this, she has to balance her desire to be a mum and her activism to ensure that her beliefs are heard and represented and to avoid getting arrested so she can adopt a child. Now the themes of the film are what help it to stand out. There are a lot of interesting ideas brought forward about environmental activism in terms of how it is presented to the world. Whilst the ideals behind Hella’s actions are admirable, those ideals are not what the public are told about her. Even when Hella releases her manifesto detailing why she is committing the acts of sabotage, only those who see the original document know what she is saying. For everyone else, the media and police distort her message, with this showing how activists have to be very careful with how they word their message (which is something Hella is warned about). The entirety of Hella’s manifesto is torn apart because of one line which is used to paint her as a religious extremist, as a terrorist and as someone who doesn’t care about the ordinary people of Iceland, with her actions being presented as harming the Icelandic people by forcing prices to go up and wages to go down. The film itself presents Hella’s actions as noble and heroic, but only the audience and the people who Hella talks to directly about what she’s doing will understand that. There’s also the idea presented that governments don’t want to do any serious actions to stop climate change for political and economic reasons, putting on the face of being concerned for the environment but doing deals that will cause irreparable environmental damage, with these deals receiving nowhere near the level of coverage in the media that Hella’s actions do. There’s also an interesting theme I found in the film regarding unintended consequences through a foreign tourist we cut back to during the film. Throughout the film, he keeps getting arrested for Hella’s actions, with this bringing in some interesting moral questions about there always being people who suffer due to actions like Hella’s but that her actions are justified anyway, but also that there will be people harmed by people doing nothing, represented by Hella’s adoption journey, which ends with a powerful final shot.
The performances meanwhile are excellent. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is excellent, playing a dual role of Hella and her identical sister Ása. As Hella, she shows the determination and intelligence of Hella, knowing exactly what to do to cause the most disruption without directly harming anyone with there being this quiet fury behind her actions and a determination that she is willing to do anything to present her ideals. The contrast between her fury during her activism and her kind nature in the rest of her life, being a charming presence as a choir instructor and presenting this feeling of love in relation to the adoption process. As Ása meanwhile, she does a great job at showing more of a spiritual side, with Ása being a yoga instructor and into Indian spirituality, along with showing a sense of love between the two sisters, along with showing how the way the media presents Hella makes even those close to her disagree with what she’s doing (even if they don’t know it’s her). There’s also solid work done by Jóhann Sigurðarson as Sveinbjörn, a farmer who becomes an ally of Hella, showing how Hella is able to convince others of the worthiness of her cause and also a sense of solidarity that the people of Iceland feel. The rest of the cast meanwhile do great work at showing how people react to Hella and help to build the world of the film.
The technical side of the film I found pretty impressive. The film makes great use of the Icelandic environment, showing off how gorgeous Iceland is and using the terrain to create some really tense scenes. When Halla is running from police helicopters and drones she uses the Icelandic terrain to her advantage, finding gaps in the terrain to hide between and using rivers and even the local wildlife to evade capture. These scenes are well executed with Geirharðsdóttir’s performance adding to the tension in these scenes. The use of music meanwhile is fascinating. Virtually all of the music in the film is diagetic, with a band playing the score of the film being present in each scene, with there being points where the band interacts with Hella, including a point where they turn on the TV to show Hella the news reports of her actions. It’s a fascinating way to present the score of a film and I felt it worked brilliantly in the context of the film. I know this style won’t be for everyone, but I was fascinated watching it.
Overall, I found Woman at War to be an engaging film with a timely look at the nature of environmental activism and how it is distorted to vilify those who want to protect the world. It’s stuff that is being seen in the world now through the vilification of the student strikers and Greta Thunberg and this helps to give Woman at War it’s power. This, aided by an excellent performance from Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir and a fascinating use of music helps to give the film a lot of power.
My Rating: 5/5