Woman at War

M, 1 hr 41 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 Stars

Of the various women warriors on the big screen this week, Woman at War is the most unusual. It is a clever balancing act that is both playful and serious, while suggesting that Icelandic humour and world view can hit the spot at times.

In Captain Marvel, a young female warrior played by Brie Larson is learning to unleash her powers and take her place in the pantheon of superheroes. The biggest blockbuster of the year so far and still going strong, it has quite a smart, witty script and Ben Mendelsohn’s performance to recommend it.

Destroyer with Nicole Kidman, barely recognisable if not fully convincing, certainly packs a punch. As a driven LAPD detective on a vendetta, Kidman is tracking down a vicious criminal mastermind who has escaped justice. It is one of those interesting films that really divides critics and audiences, and it is as gritty and grim as Captain Marvel is as fun and forgettable.

A very different kind of quest motivates Woman at War, a comedic drama from Iceland that is directed with wit and brio by Benedikt Erlingsson, who also co-wrote it with Olafur Egilsson.Woman at War plots the course of an environmental activist who, like David to Goliath, confronts a giant multinational corporation, Rio Tinto in fact, that is ruining the pristine countryside. In her efforts to stop it building another aluminium smelter, with Chinese backing, she becomes an enemy of the state in this engaging and eccentric film, right out of left field.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), raises her long bow and fires in the first scene. Bullseye. Single-handedly – well almost, a couple of others are in the know – she closes down vast sections of the grid and holds an entire country, albeit a small one, to ransom.

When not moonlighting as a committed activist, Halla is a healthy, energetic choir director who fits in well with her community. She is single, and at 49 years waiting to hear whether her application to adopt an orphan from the Ukraine has been successful. She had all but forgotten about it, but it comes through and hears that a little girl is waiting for her.

Now what does she do? How to reconcile the responsibilities of motherhood with militant activism to save the planet from environmental disaster? These are weighty issues. Perhaps the pacifist strategies of the heroes she has on her wall at home, Mandela and Gandhi, will inform her.

Along the way on Halla’s journey, a trio of musicians has been playing in the background and sometimes in Halla’s own home, even turning on the telly. It is a marvellously eccentric interpolation. Later on, a trio of Ukrainian folk singers share the frame with Halla. What an inspired idea, to have the score played and sung by performers who appear in the same space as the actors.

Another diverting device that keeps the mood buoyant is the hapless Spanish tourist cycling around the country. He keeps being found by the police in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is arrested on suspicion of being responsible for Halla’s acts of sabotage. It is an hilarious incidental detail.

When Halla’s twin sister, also played by Geirharosdottir, unexpectedly appears on the scene, she is indeed the other side of the coin, looking for fulfilment and inner peace and harmony in her yoga and meditation. Asa’s appearance means even more screen time with this excellent lead actress.

In less deft and subtle hands this funny fable from a remote and idiosyncratic land could have turned out differently. Woman at War could have been simply weird, but it is an unequivocal success instead.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz/90.3MHz Tuggeranong