Iceland! Land of a million slots and crevices in which to bury oneself following an act of eco-sabotage! At the start of Benedikt Erlingsson’s rousingly offbeat Woman at War, the eponymous middle-aged warrior, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), strides across one of those vast, empty Icelandic landscapes with a bow and arrow, takes out a power line leading to a huge smelter, and hides from the inevitable helicopter under a mossy overhang. There are few trees to hug where she goes, but she’s often seen flat against the ground with her face against the grass or peat or volcanic stone, at one with the world in ways she doesn’t always intend.
Although the public knows her as a choir conductor, Halla has long resolved to do her part in the battle against climate change by “monkey-wrenching” the heavy industry out of her country, and every news report of flooded cities around the globe strengthens her will. The monkey wrench in her personal machinery is news that an application to adopt a child she’d put in four years earlier has finally yielded a result. A Ukrainian girl orphaned by war needs a mother. But how can Halla risk being imprisoned when she’s responsible for a child already traumatized by the loss of one home?
Erlingsson could have told this tale grimly — it’s grim stuff, with Halla’s capture all but certain given CIA intercession (the U.S. is happy to aid in the capture of anyone who threatens the global energy supply) and a freshly procured army of drones. But he has a wild card. Perhaps taking a cue from Lars von Trier’s back-to-nature Dogme 95 movement, Erlingsson always puts the source of the film’s music onscreen. That can be done realistically with Halla’s choir, but she’s often alone, planning her attacks or running from pursuers through muck and peat. No problem: Wherever she is, there’s a trio nearby: three poker-faced fellows on keyboards, drums, and sousaphone. I was wondering if Erlingsson would adhere to the whole Dogme no-tricks aesthetic when Halla’s twin, Asa, shows up — and Geirharðsdóttir doesn’t have a twin in real life. So the film is tricky indeed — and hilarious when our woman Rambo is braving the elements while behind her are men delivering oompahs and cymbal crashes and baby-grand cadenzas. There’s a melancholy touch as well: an a cappella trio of women in traditional Ukrainian folk garb to remind Halla that a little girl awaits.
Woman at War takes its tone not from von Trier but deadpan pranksters like the Finnish Aki Kaurismaki, whose absurdities have an undercurrent of tragedy. Erlingsson has a magnetic heroine in Geirharðsdóttir, who’s lithe and athletic without being a show off, and underplays as a good soldier would. The movie has a bonus, jack-in-the-box running gag: a hapless Spanish visitor named Juan (Juan Camilla Roman Estrada) who just wants to bike around Iceland but is always getting hauled in (mistakenly) for Halla’s crimes. The final scenes are heartwarming, but the film ends with a flood — as our world will, too, at this rate. Hail, Halla, the Woman at War!