Ruairí McCann on Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War (2018)
Woman at War / Kona fer í stríð is an eco-thriller and musical comedy fronted by Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a choir conductor and the prospective mother of a Ukrainian refugee called Nika (Margaryta Hilska). Halla spends her free time out in highlands, sabotaging the electrical grid as a means of disrupting an environmentally catastrophic aluminium plant and other industrial developments. However, the more ambitious her actions get, the more public opinion starts to turn against her (with accusations of exasperation and intransigence not unlike recent instances of resistance against Extinction Rebellion and other climate activist groups). As the authorities zero in, she must decide whether it’s worth continuing her activities and risk losing her freedom, her friends and Nika.
The film conceives of her as a warrior. Her exercises, composed of swift and elegant movements, are not unlike a samurai psyching up for battle. In the opening scene, seen crouched down with her bow aimed upwards at a towering pylon, she is the spitting image of a hunting deity, a Nordic Artemis. Yet, she’s not a God but a human being whose emotional state is materialised in the film’s central gambit-cum-gimmick — a three-piece band that follows her around scoring her activities, who for the most part only she can see.
The band describes Halla’s state of mind and, concomitantly, controls the film’s pace, adding an élan or slowing things down with rollicking jazz numbers when she’s on the move, or sad piano ditties during moments of quietude. They are there for comic relief too but the results of writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson’s handiwork is stuck between dull and slightly risible. Given that the band are at least in part free from the rules of the material world, there should have been ample room for imaginative gag work. But, instead, Erlingsson relies on turning their reappearances into a game of guessing not how but when they’re going to emerge into the frame.
The make-up of the band feeds into the film’s menagerie of stereotypes—as part of its lampooning of Icelandic and liberal society—for they manifest as a trio of Nordic-looking men, copiously hairy and daubed in stylish suits in accordance with the stereotype of Icelanders as well-groomed hipster types. Or rather, to be specific, modern Icelandic man. Halla’s real-life accessory, a farmer and widower called Sveinbjorn (Jóhann Sigurðarson), makes up the ranks of the old. When Halla first stumbles across his property while making a getaway, it seems like he would be the last person she would want to run into; he is introduced as an anti-social chauvinist gruff with a canine companion called ‘Woman’. Yet that façade soon falls away and he is revealed to be of a sympathetic sort. A big old teddy bear that Sigurðarson is good at switching to and from, as he later puts the macho rustic act back on in order to spook a few police officers who are on Halla’s trail, bellowing a rant about city folk encroaching on his land.
There’s another stereotype loose. This one is a running gag. A Latin American tourist (Antoine Huré) who, in multiple instances of wrong-place-wrong time, and more importantly because of racism, is repeatedly arrested for Halla’s actions. His behaviour and personality are custom fitted to bigoted fears directed at visiting, or migrating, people of colour. Even before his Kafkaesque series of injustices he is presented as idiotic, uncomprehending and irrationally aggressive, sporting a Che Guevara t-shirt as he goes around screaming “puta!” Erlingsson seems to have gone about sticking a bunch of loaded characteristics onto a cartoon in order to make a soft-peddled comment on the dehumanisation of those susceptible to police brutality. His message doesn’t land, nor does his idea of refuting and rolling back stereotype. To do what he did for Sveinbjorn and reveal the more complex human being underneath is in his last to have him bump into Halla and greet her calmly before he is rugby tackled and frogmarched for the last time. Still, a cliché because by Erlingsson’s standards a sign of someone’s civility, and therefore worth when it comes to bestowing empathy, is that they can speak about five words of English.
This film not only finds a limit to its humour but its usefulness as a political film. For it will manage to put together some critique, for example, in a midpoint montage sequence showing how after Halla releases her manifesto, the opinionated from across the spectrum will put this attempt at progressive political change through that meat grinder called ‘the discourse’, where it will be mangled either by banal, reductive analysis or through comparisons to the ideologies of both ISIS and Anders Breivik.
But then the film’s response to vapid political commentary is equally vacuous. In that, it answers a shot of pundits babbling with a reverse of Halla, frustrated but firm, with framed portraits of Gandhi and Mandela hanging behind her. It is questionable, if lazy, to align her with these two disparate figures as a shorthand for her unshakeable idealism, but these icons are repeated, culminating in a scene where Sveinbjorn treats us to an extended POV shot of the two of them. He’s trying to make sense of the association and we are meant to as well. But there’s nothing deeper than a tenuous link between her and their struggle.
It’s better, then, to view the film as a light piece of carnivalesque, made by and for the middle class to titter at before they return to the fold. The problem though is that, once again, it’s just not funny enough.
Woman at War is in cinemas now