The Movie Waffler New To MUBI - WOMAN AT WAR | The Movie Waffler


woman at war review
A woman declares war on the local aluminum industry to protect the highlands of Iceland, but her situation could change when a long-forgotten application for adoption is approved.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson

Starring: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada, Jörundur Ragnarsson

woman at war dvd

Constructed within a narrative framework of personal versus professional ethics, a narrative skeleton often used for the central ongoing conflict in character-driven TV shows, Woman at War is a brilliant comedy thriller that pits its lead characters’ heart and mind conflicts in exciting, thought-provoking, and crowd-pleasing fashion, through such imagination that many serialised dramas can’t exhibit in an entire season.

The rich story of this Icelandic Academy Awards entry (it totally deserved a nomination) follows Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a choir conductor who wants to drive a stake through the greenhouse-gas-emitting aluminium industry by interfering in the operations of her local Rio Tinto plant, when the Icelandic government negotiates with the corporation to build a new smelter. In the midst of her battle against her nation’s rising CO2 emissions, she receives a letter that states her longstanding application to adopt a Ukrainian orphan child has been accepted.

woman at war review

Thus begins Halla’s existential journey to reconcile her activism in the Highlands, which is very action-oriented (cutting, smashing, damaging things), with her lifelong dream of becoming a mother. She’s a terrifically complex protagonist that has us channeling our inner child to cheer her on the same way we did for the vigilante heroes of our youth such as Batman and Robin Hood. The ballad of Halla does play out like one of these tales and it’s especially a funny comparison to those properties because, while recent filmic iterations of the Caped Crusader and Robin of Locksley have aimed for grit and solemness, Benedikt Erlingsson’s movie has a wonderful sense of humour.

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There’s tender situational comedy, but more of it comes from humorous self-referentiality for the sort of film the director makes. Exemplified best by a recurring group of musicians that only Halla can see, this band employ a score based around steady instrumental convergence (tuba, drums, organ, piano, etc., sort of like Antonio Sánchez’s work on Birdman), appropriate for a madcap comedy-caper.

woman at war review

The best part is that the three-piece always physically appear with their eclectic arsenal of instruments and their presence works in two ways: firstly, it’s a nice gesture from the filmmaker to draw our attention to their craftsmanship and, secondly, on a self-referential level, it eliminates the artifice that results from a score’s general purpose to manipulate and telegraph our emotions. Even though the director has made a very accessible film - especially compared to his previous effort, the strange and offbeat Of Horses and Men - he’s conscious of not losing his creative identity by ensuring his idiosyncratic humour is an active participant in his work.

Thirdly, every time we hear the music play and the camera gently pans and we see them seated firm in the background, deadpan, playing their melodies, it’s hilarious. I knew when they were going to be there but, like clockwork, they busted my gut every time.

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Extending from this point, Erlingsson is a master of visual design, with a deft understanding of mise-en-scene and camera control, matched by few contemporary filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuaron, Michel Gondry and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Like the latter auteur, each of his frames teems with potential for humour, often realised just by a simple panning or tracking shot. Also like Jeunet, there are surrealist touches to this comedy, like the aforementioned pop-up band and an unexpected twin sister called Ása (also played by the same actress), a yoga instructor who is far too zen to think about the potential compromise to her life that may result from her identical appearance to Halla.

woman at war review

Not only does the filmmaker have great guidance for the technical team but he and co-writer Ólafur Egilsson have crafted one hell of a story to boot. There have been several ecologically-themed fiction films - from Soylent Green to San Andreas - but few are as uplifting (or, frankly, just as well made) as Woman at War. The climate change theme is amazingly realised through the character of Halla, a woman who has been pushed too far and is now pushing back, needing to be disruptive for the necessary institutions to pay attention (it recalls the recent Extinction Rebellion protests) with the proposition of becoming a mother to an orphaned child working as subtext for who will be most affected by our actions to this Earth. From a terrific opening scene to an apocalyptic final shot, Erlingsson proves to have enormous flair for cinematic storytelling.

This juicy premise is very attractive for an inevitable American remake. Oh wait - there’s already one in pre-production! Jodie Foster has snapped up the rights and is set to star and direct in the American adaptation. There are reasons to be cheerful considering the amazing talent that is Ms Foster, though, as always with remakes, there’s the question of “Why?” This role totally belongs to Geirharðsdóttir the same way Choi Min-sik took complete ownership of Oldboy’s Oh Dae-su, causing Josh Brolin’s rendition to be lost in the memory of anyone who saw the Anglicised version. However, all this considered, the USA’s leadership could do with being subject to an edifying comedy about climate change.

Woman at War is on MUBI UK from June 5th.

2019 movie reviews