Posts Tagged ‘Benedikt Erlingsson’

Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: I really, really liked Avengers: Endgame, despite all the (arguable) plot holes – I actually felt myself having significant emotions during it, both times, which isn’t a very common occurrence. It’s a great movie. But before we all sit around shaking our heads with impressed disbelief at that $2.2 billion (at the time of writing) box-office take, we should probably bear in mind the situation in which all those tickets are being sold.


We should not be under any illusions about the way that Disney, owners of the Marvel franchise, are leveraging their box office clout in order to maximise returns on the movie. Cinemas that want to show Endgame have had to agree to show it a minimum number of times a day for a minimum period of time in order to get the opportunity (Disney do the same with their own big films and the stellar conflict franchise, which is another one of their properties). It makes sound business sense, as we can see, but it doesn’t exactly encourage biodiversity in the movie ecosystem. People were running scared even before Endgame came out, with hardly any competitive releases the weekend before; the only films coming out at the moment are ones which are very sure of landing an audience, such as Tolkien, and niche films which were never really going to appeal to a mainstream crowd anyway.

Which brings us to Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War, which is probably one of the most niche films to make it into cinemas this year. This is an Icelandic-Ukrainian co-production, which in itself is an exotic pedigree, but this is just for starters – just wait until we get onto the plot. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays Halla, a middle-aged choir mistress from (one presumes) suburban Reykjavik. She outwardly lives a completely happy and unremarkable Nordic life. However, Halla has – for want of a better expression – a secret identity, as ‘The Mountain Woman’, a longbow-toting eco-terrorist. As the film opens, she is just in the process of sabotaging some electricity pylons in an attempt to shut down a smelting plant producing heavy pollution, before skedaddling across country with the authorities in hot pursuit. But she manages to stay one step ahead – for the time being, at least.

Halla’s campaign has inevitably attracted media attention, not least because she is jeopardising investment in the country from the Americans and Chinese; satellites and all the other apparatus of the technological age are due to be deployed against her. She needs to move quickly to complete her plan if her adherence to her convictions is not to lead to another sort of conviction. But then something completely unexpected occurs: she receives a letter, telling her that an application to adopt, made literally years earlier, has been approved, and there is a small Ukrainian girl waiting for her in an orphanage there. Will this bring about a shift in Halla’s priorities?

So, yes, another film about an Icelandic eco-terrorist choir mistress – how many of those have we seen in the last few years? But this is not just another film about an Icelandic eco-terrorist choir mistress. This is another film about an Icelandic eco-terrorist choir mistress which goes out of its way to be even more off-beat than the brief capsule synopsis up the page suggests. There are various other plot elements I didn’t mention there – for one thing, fairly central to the plot is the fact that Halla has an identical twin sister, Asa (Geirharðsdóttir again), who is a yoga-teaching free spirit. There is also a droll subplot about a hapless foreign tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) on a cycling tour of Iceland who just happens to be in the area whenever Halla goes into action, and is forever being nicked by the police and being dragged off to jail as a result.

However, the most self-consciously quirky thing about an extremely self-consciously quirky film is the way the soundtrack is handled. Most of this is provided by either a choir of Ukrainian throat-singers, or a local trio on keyboards, drums and sousaphone. But wait, it gets even more quirky than that sounds. The first sign of how odd this film is going to get comes early on, with Halla making her way across country, the local band tootling away on the soundtrack. Or are they? The camera pans to follow Halla, and as it does so we can clearly see the band and their instruments in the back of the shot, looking rather incongruous on the Icelandic moorland.

But wait, it gets yet more quirky still. The whole issue of whether this is diegetic or non-diegetic music becomes even more confused, as not only do the various musicians pop up in the background on a regular basis throughout the film, there are also points at which they start interacting (in a low-key way) with Halla and the rest of the story. At one point, the band start getting tweets about her activities; later, she gets home and discovers she is being denounced as a terrorist (no eco-) on the news by the government, and switches off the TV angrily – but the band, who are present, are apparently following the story and switch it back on, rather to her annoyance.

The least you can say about this is that it is distinctive, and not un-amusing, to begin with at least. However, as the film goes on and the choristers and musicians continue to make their on-camera appearances, it loses most of its comedy value and becomes, if not actively irritating, then certainly distracting. Is Erlingsson just including this conceit because he thinks it’s amusing and unusual? It’s hard to think of another reason for it. It is also quite distancing, constantly reminding you that you’re watching something artificial, which is the opposite of what good films usually aspire to do – it keeps deliberately kicking you out, rather than pulling you in.

This is a shame, because the film does touch on some potentially interesting ideas and is generally rather well-made: some of the themes it briefly engages with are the ethics of the kind of direct action that Halla is engaged in (who are the real criminals, aren’t her actions wildly undemocratic, and so on), and the tensions between traditional Icelandic society and the globalised world attempting to increase its influence over the country. There’s an extended sequence of Hall being pursued by a succession of drones, helicopters and tracker dogs which plays like a conventional thriller and is genuinely gripping and tense (no throat-singers in this bit). Elsewhere, the film offers the possibility that, for all of Halla’s apparent zeal for her cause, this may just be displacement activity to make up for her own loneliness and lack of fulfilment.

None of these things, however, really end up going anywhere – if the film has a theme, message, or underlying moral premise it’s not at all clear what it is, while the various contortions of the plot become increasingly preposterous towards the end of the film. This does not necessarily detract from the charm of the film, which is considerable – it’s well-played, gently funny, and involving. But I do think that most people’s ability to watch it will depend on their tolerance for self-conscious quirkiness, because that, above all else, is what Woman at War has in spades.

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