A hand in a black glove fits an arrow to a bow and adds some kind of metal cable to the rig. The archer is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), and she has an ingenious and illegal purpose: she’s bringing down high tension power lines in order to sabotage Iceland’s drive to industrialize. For her, it’s ultimately a matter of climate change, and Halle is not messing around. She’s a 40-something woman who bounds over the Icelandic tundra like a mountain sheep – she even hides under a full sheep carcass when the police helicopters hunt for her. She knows how to tuck herself under a lip of tundra or slide around a rock cairn to stay out of sight.
Halla also has a day job. She‘s a choir director with a sober, sweet, graceful manner about her. If you bumped into Halla on the street, you might find her a serious, purposeful woman with sensible short hair wearing a nice comfortable Icelandic sweater. She rides an old-fashioned bicycle with upright handlebars and a big wicker basket in front. But by herself out on the huge expanse of green tundra, there’s an ecstatic quality about her. She’s marvelous.
And so is the film, Woman at War. It’s directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, and unlike Halla, the movie is not sensible at all, at least on its surface.
Unexpected, out of place characters wander the film. A Spanish bicyclist, a tourist, manages to be wherever the cops search for the sabotaging culprit. They don’t know who it is yet, but over and over they arrest this poor unsuspecting guy riding his bike through the countryside, lock him up and then release him, when they figure out, he’s still not the one blowing up the power lines.
Even less expected, early in the picture, Halla runs across the tundra, and out there in the wilderness a three-man band plays an accompaniment to her. A piano, a drum and a tuba. Later in the picture the drum gets very big and an accordion shows up. This is the music for the film, and the band appears on the tundra, in Halla’s kitchen or wherever. It turns out that Halla has wanted to adopt a child, and when she learns that she’s about to become the mother of a 4-year-old girl from Ukraine, three Ukrainian folksingers in costume join the movie.
To add to the beautifully balmy atmosphere, Halla has a sister – an identical twin named Ása also played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir. The first shots of Ása teaching yoga make you do a double take, until you adjust and realize that Woman at War loves to shake up its audience, but in playful, absurdist ways. Nobody gets hurt in the film; nobody’s seriously mistreated; no misery is forced upon any of the characters. Even for the stickiest moment, the film finds an out that’s lovely, graceful, kind and bizarre.
It’s not often that genuinely original films come along, movies that radiate a sense of freedom from the norm. For all their flash and dazzle, special effects action extravaganzas look formulaic – they trot out the same tricks over and over. Woman at War, with straight on shooting and nobody flying or changing shape, feels unique. It opens you up to accept that whatever you think of Halla’s actions, she has guts, vision and a sense of humor. And you like her.
In her world, identical twins fool the cops, and bands perform on the tundra with no fanfare, fuss or even wonder about why they’re out there. As a viewer, you’re liberated to dream more widely than usual and to feel that basic thrill that the movies have always promised but not always produced – a real break from normality. Fantasies don’t have to involve princes and princesses or space travel. Like Woman at War, they can simply nudge your imagination, or invite you into their space – like Halla with a kind gesture and music.