When you think of Nordic cinema and television, it’s chilly detective stories that spring to mind. British and American TV viewers, in particular, have become obsessed with the notion of ‘Nordic Noir’ shows like The Bridge and Borgen. There’s some of that DNA in the new comedy Woman at War – Iceland’s entry into this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar race – which weaves elements of a crime story around the skeleton of a quirky drama.
The titular warrior is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), who is a choir conductor by day, but a crusading protester by night, with portraits of Nelson Mandela and Gandhi on the walls of her home. We meet her using a bow and arrow to disrupt the power supply to a factory up in the scenic highlands, to which she has a moral objection. Her protests continue to escalate, while a long-forgotten application to adopt a child seems about to come to fruition.
In true Nordic fashion, this is a rather cold and detached film, unfolding at a very deliberate pace and somewhat lacking a typical forward momentum. Geirharðsdóttir’s character frequently converses with an activist working within government, who hides in plain sight as part of her choir, but their plans never seem to solidify into a coherent campaign. Effectively, she’s a slightly chaotic lone wolf.
The film clings tightly to its protagonist, and Geirharðsdóttir – who also portrays Halla’s identical twin sister – rises to the challenge with a performance of steely determination. She’s as believable as a doggedly driven protester as she is when she shows a softer side in meeting the Ukrainian child she may be on the verge of adopting.
From a dramatic perspective, there’s something very intriguing about Woman at War, which teases out its narrative threads quite nicely in the early stages. The comic chemistry too between the two Geirharðsdóttirs is very nicely played, with Halla’s uptight activist contrasting nicely against her sister Ása’s status as a permanently chilled yoga fan. There’s also a fun recurring gag in which a Spanish-speaking tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) is consistently arrested for Halla’s crimes by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot about the film that feels a little like it might have got lost in translation. Every note of Davíð Þór Jónsson’s score is diegetic, with director Benedikt Erlingsson pulling the camera away from action in order to show either a three-man band or a trio of traditional singers, providing the musical accompaniment. It’s funny the first time the gag is deployed and there’s an intrigue in the way these musicians link with the narrative, but it never seems to come too much.
And in many ways, that feels like a metaphor for the film as a whole. It has its intriguing elements, and utilises the beautiful Icelandic landscapes – the rejuvenating powers of a hot spring play a crucial role – to great effect. However, it just feels as if Erlingsson doesn’t much of an idea how to pull everything together and hit the home run the movie so desperately needs.
Dir: Benedikt Erlingsson
Scr: Benedikt Erlingsson, Ólafur Egill Egilsson
Cast: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Jörundur Ragnarsson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada
Prd: Benedikt Erlingsson, Carine Leblanc, Marianne Slot
DOP: Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson
Music: Davíð Þór Jónsson
Country: Iceland, France, Ukraine
Run time: 101 mins
Woman at War is in UK cinemas from 3rd May.