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Woman at War

Protagonist and antagonist Hella balances her environmental and personal lives.

DIR. BENEDIKT ERLINGSSON

If you thought that Iceland is only defined by its volcanoes and geysers, then the glorious landscape photography in Woman at War shows the other side of the raw land, uninhabited except by fauna and sheep.

The opening scenes bear a metaphoric resemblance to that of the American Wild West as the railways were being built, in that they were vulnerable and exposed to attack. The film opens with a single, isolated figure, nothing around her for miles, striding with purpose towards an electricity pylon. In a methodical, meticulous manner of someone who knows exactly what they are doing, she uses a bow to fire an arrow attached to a metal line over the power lines. Within a few minutes, Hella has cut off the power to a major metal smelting plant and so the chase begins.

So Hella is an environmentalist, prepared to take positive actions for the causes she believes in. It’s a cause some people sympathise with, whilst others worry about keeping a job and family safe.

This duality of the argument is neatly played out in a scene when Hella debates the issues with her yoga teacher who is unaware she’s discussing the matter with the so-called “Mountain Woman” at the heart of the disruption.

Yet a complication in Hella’s campaign arises when a long-forgotten dream seems about to be realised: Hella’s four-year-old application to become a mother by adopting a young, orphaned child has been successful. Not in the first flush of youth and with no partner, this is likely to be the only chance for her to experience motherhood. So the external, physical conflict of the eco-warrior verses industry is played against her maternal instincts.

As the net tightens to catch the Mountain Woman and the tension increases, Hella is confronted by stark choices, knowing that any decision will cause personal pain. Needless to say, there are many more twists as Hella tries to manage both situations, yet the choice may not be hers. Both paths are as rugged and bone-jarring as the other, as the hunted becomes the hunter.

Far from being a doom laden affair, there are plenty of lighthearted touches in the sharp script by Erlingsson and Ólafur Egill Egilsson, with the sardonic “Welcome to Iceland” throwaway remark from a police officer to a wrongly arrested immigrant generating laughs in the theatre.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays the conflicted Hella with just the right amount of quiet warmth, grit and determination to keep her character engaged with the audience. Jon Jóhannsson as a farmer, who may or may not be related to Hella, gives his character a gruff exterior an underlying cosiness, whilst Hella’s sister moves from her own comfort zone to make her own personal sacrifices.

Perhaps some people will wait until the English language remake of this film starring Jodie Foster is released, but I’d recommend the original.

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