How to properly describe the Icelandic film Woman At War? On the one hand, it’s a serious film about environmental activism and the scourge of climate change. But it’s also an action film, filled with actual scenes of dodging helicopters and drones and ducking in caves and crevices. It’s a feminist clarion call, with a middle-aged (!) female heroine who genuinely warrants the designation “badass.” It’s a realistic film that nonetheless flirts with elements of magic realism, absurdism, and whimsy. And oh yeah, if you squint hard enough, it even has a little romance.
That director Benedikt Erlingsson manages to balance all these elements in a way that is both wildly entertaining, light on its feet, and cohesive is a testament to his unique voice and skills. It also helps that his leading lady is the extraordinary Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who perfectly embodies the spirit of this hearty, no-nonsense, vigilante do-gooder.
Halla certainly doesn’t look like your typical eco-warrior. She’s a mild-mannered choir teacher who lives alone in an airy, plant-filled apartment. But look more closely and you’ll see clues—her walls are festooned with portraits of her heroes, including Nelson Mandela and Gandhi.
Some international manufacturing plant has opened in the quiet Icelandic village where she lives, belching toxic fumes out into the environment. Halla’s plan is simple: She’ll destroy power lines, cutting off electricity to the plant. She works stealthily and mostly alone: She has a rather twitchy and paranoid mole inside the Icelandic government who assists her. And she is also aided by a kindly farmer who takes a shining to her and even loans her a car (a teal blue vintage Volvo that I need in my life.)
The government and local media has spun the mysterious vigilante as a scary terrorist who is trying to sabotage Iceland’s economy. (In a running gag that is both funny and telling: an innocent Hispanic backpacker is constantly being mistaken for the terrorist.) Suddenly, she is being pursued by the police. But her bravery, ingenuity, and knowledge of the rugged terrain keeps her one step ahead of the law.
Everything changes—or potentially changes—when Halla finds out that an adoption form she filled out four years ago (and had long given up on) has come through: A tiny orphaned Ukrainian girl—in a picture, she looks up with sad, trusting eyes and clutches a bouquet of flowers—will soon be ready to become her daughter. Now she has a true dilemma: Keep up her underground work and risk going to jail or stop what she’s doing and allow her potential daughter to grow up in a world that is uninhabitable.
There are wonderful twists and surprises along the way, none of which I will spoil here. Suffice it to say, Woman at War had me gripped and delighted all the way through. And when it was over, I wanted to see more of Erlingsson and Geirharðsdóttir’s work—and immediately began planning a trip to Iceland.
Woman At War is now playing in D.C. and Bethesda and opens next week (3/22) in Baltimore.