Woman at War is a darkly comic look at contemporary activism
In Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War, climate change is placed front and center in a film that is equal parts comedy, suspenseful drama, and middle-age reckoning. At the heart of it all is Halla (played to brilliant perfection by Halldora Geirharosdottir), a joyful choir conductor who side-hustles as an eco-terrorist.
When foreign interests set their eyes on Iceland to build aluminum smelting plants, Halla becomes a one-woman army hell-bent on saving her homeland from the ravages of industry. Her weapon of choice, a bow-and-arrow, which she uses to take down powerlines to the plants and in one rather memorable scene, a police drone, is reminiscent of another legendary outlaw with good intentions. The painting of Halla as a crusading avenger running across the beautiful landscapes of Iceland is where this film shines as a modern fable for conservancy. Take care of the land, and the land will take care of you, as we see Halla evade police time and time again. She knows Iceland intimately (as is evident in the number of times she rubs her face against the soft mossy-like vegetation that floats on the rocky terrain), and uses the flora and fauna as her cover.
It’s not until we learn about Halla’s desire to be a mother that we begin to understand the void her extracurricular activities may be acting to fill. Although I hesitate to think that making the choice to risk life, limb, and possibly freedom, was an impulse decision driven by a declined adoption application. Never-the-less, Halla gets the word that her application was indeed accepted, and there’s a little girl in Ukraine waiting for her. Realizing the obvious, Halla decides to embark on one final mission before embracing the life she’s dreamed of.
There’s a lot more Woman at War wrestles with thematically to varying success. There’s the poor Mexican tourist who repeatedly ends up near the scenes of Halla’s crimes and is taken in by police for questioning. His character and situations are darkly comedic nods to the injustices immigrants anywhere face in foreign lands that view them as the threats their own citizens could never be. There’s Halla’s twin sister (also played by Geirharosdottir), a yoga guru who shares Halla’s views on problems but not their solutions, opting instead to use the power of prayer and “good vibes” to change the world. Again, comedically infuriating, but for different reasons.
There’s also the inclusion of a three-piece band, and later, Ukrainian folk singers, that only Halla can see and hear, that act as a narration of sorts to the emotional fervor going on inside Halla’s head. The band is reminiscent of soldier percussionists, riling up the troops before the big battle begins. The folk singers, singing songs of her future daughter’s homeland, strive to pull her away from the sounds of war. By the films end, Halla and her daughter are wading waist-deep in flood waters that have marooned their bus, the musicians linger behind together indicating that these two passions of Halla’s life are interconnected and need not be separated but fought for together.
Woman at War is a film that manages to weave together some of the most divisive subjects of the 21st century with real humor and insight. No matter what side of the fence you fall on, there is something to glean from this intimate meditation on the present state of activism.
Woman at War opens in Philly theaters today.