In a clever twist of counterprogramming, Magnolia Pictures released “Woman at War” the same day as “Captain Marvel,” presumably to give viewers more than one chance to see a female superhero pull up her sleeves and get to work.
As this intriguing, visually stunning movie opens, a woman named Halla is tightening her bow and sending an arrow across an array of utility towers, a real-life Artemis whose precise goal remains elusive in a mostly silent sequence.
Played by the Icelandic actress Halldora Geirharosdottir – who cuts an arresting, statuesque figure against mossy rural highlands – Halla doesn’t speak until she encounters a farmer who agrees to help her in what turns out to be her single-minded quest: to protest the Icelandic government’s cooperation with polluting corporations, in this case by temporarily paralyzing an aluminum smelter.
Back in Reykjavik, Halla engages in more respectable pursuits: She’s a choir director whose secret life she shares only with one or two accomplices. She has posters of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela hanging in her sunny middle-class house, suggesting either bourgeois dilettantism or self-sacrificing commitment.
Benedikt Erlingsson, who wrote and directed “Woman at War,” doesn’t force viewers into one camp or another. As Halla’s actions become riskier and more audacious – made even more questionable by an unexpected development in her personal life – a film that could be a reflexive celebration of radical political action instead becomes a thoughtful meditation on the ethics of extremism, the limits of nonviolence and the proper response to global threats that aren’t just environmental or economic but existential.
Set in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, “Woman at War” has all the contours of a taut, paranoid thriller, if you can imagine that set within the tidy, brightly lit environs of Iceland, rather than the shadows of Wall Street or Washington. Although it’s photographed in widescreen glory to evoke Westerns, war pictures and other battle-ready genres, the film’s serious subject matter is continually undercut by a jaunty score, performed on screen by a trio of musicians who act as a silent Greek chorus and window into Halla’s psyche. This is her movie and her soundtrack, we discover, and when three more musicians show up – traditionally costumed women singing Ukrainian folk songs – her internal struggle between destructive and nurturing impulses is laid bare with even more captivating clarity.
A movie as intensely subjective as “Woman at War” had better have an actress deserving of unwavering attention, and Erlingsson has found her in Geirharosdottir, who proves to be supremely at ease with both the physical demands of the film and its trickier internal journeys. Tall and lithe, her auburn hair framing a tough and beautiful face, Geirharosdottir doesn’t beg to be liked as a figure some will see as brave and heroic and others will see as woefully misguided.
Edited with swift, perceptive economy, “Woman at War” might have set itself up as a contemporary fairy tale, especially by way of its playful staging. But it’s also about very real questions having to do with globalization, ecological degradation, state-sanctioned media and the people we chronically dismiss, underestimate and ignore. (In one on-the-nose aside, one of Halla’s associates has named his dog “Woman,” an epithet jokingly mirrored in a running gag involving a Spanish-speaking character, who appears throughout the story.)
As Halla continues to tilt at her modern-day windmills, she grows closer and closer to the Earth, covering herself in mud and soil, ultimately becoming one with the thing she’s trying to save. By the time “Woman at War” concludes, with a biblical scene of a crowd of people trying to escape perilously rising floodwaters, what could be perceived as a happy ending also carries with it a Cassandra-like warning and a bittersweet note of futility.
It’s a reflection of Erlingsson’s confidence, both in his audience and his own filmmaking skills, that he leaves the final interpretation up to us.
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