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In Woman at War, an Icelandic eco-warrior fights the power

Deadpan comedy meets high-voltage thriller in a tale of an Icelandic woman who takes on a smelting plant. 

Like New Zealand, Iceland is used frequently as a Hollywood backlot, its otherworldly scenery doubling for distant planets or fantasy lands. Woman at War spends a fair amount of time roaming the landscape, but it’s in a story about preserving Iceland as a unique part of planet Earth. It’s also an ecological comedy-thriller that has a sense of humour as singular as the terrain it’s set in.

The delivery of director Benedikt Erlingsson, whose previous feature was another slightly absurd great-outdoors tale, Of Horses and Men, is reminiscent of the deadpan films of Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki.

He certainly likes his offbeat touches, such as having the film’s soundtrack played on-screen by a sousaphone-led trio with the occasional accompaniment of a Ukrainian vocal group whose nationality does have a connection to the story. Fortunately, its self-conscious quirkiness doesn’t stop Woman at War from working as a low-key, pulse-quickening, blood-free thriller powered by an engaging but unlikely hero. That’s Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who is terrific as Halla, a mild-mannered, middle-aged Reykjavik choir conductor, who, between rehearsals, likes nothing better than heading for the hills and bringing down power pylons to sabotage the power supply to an aluminium smelter owned by Rio Tinto.

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Because of its abundant geothermal and hydro power, and a small population not needing much wattage, Iceland has become a smelting hotspot.

Halla sees the new smelter, and the Government’s support of it, as a declaration of war on the planet. As her campaign escalates and the authorities ramp up their hunt for her, Halla hears that her long-forgotten application to adopt a child has been approved, a development that brings her hippie-dippy yoga-teacher twin sister (also played by Geirharðsdóttir) into the story.

The identical sibling, of course, suggests a twist is in the offing. She helps set up a poignant climax to an Icelandic film that may make you want to visit the country, which is amusing because, although smelting is its second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases, tourism is the biggest.

It’s difficult to imagine this film and this character could have worked anywhere else, unless you’re Jodie Foster, who is directing and starring in an American remake. It’s hard to see that one having the brilliant spark of the original. 

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing

This article was first published in the April 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.