‘Woman at War’ brings surprising levity to story about environmental activism, corporate greed

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In director Benedikt Erlingsson’s latest film, “Woman at War,” environmental justice is paired with comedic flourishes and a Greek chorus of instrumentalists to make for a dually light and pensive moral tale — which discusses both climate change and individual versus collective action.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays Halla, a fifty-something woman who lives an independent, unassuming life as a choir director in a small town in Iceland. She spends her days swimming, biking around the scenic hamlet and doing tai chi in front of her side-by-side posters of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Halla, however, leads a dual existence as a rogue, anonymous activist, using homemade tactics in service of environmental justice. Her goal? To take down an aluminum processing plant that is the center of the town’s industry, but is undeniably contributing to large-scale pollution.

With bow and arrow, Play-doh and other means of sabotage in hand, Halla covertly tries to take down the polluting giant. But her determined plan of action is curbed when she finds out she has been accepted to adopt a child from Ukraine. She is confronted simultaneously with the chance to help this child and with the ability to complete her long-term but dangerous goals of improving the planet with her guerilla activism.

The film maintains a deft balance between depicting Halla’s activist exploits, daily life and internal struggles in determining the right course of action. It never gets explicitly preachy, but also maintains the consistency of its environmentalist message. Halla frequently takes time onscreen to appreciate nature, breathing in the smells of the world around her, and Erlingsson takes time to feature the beautiful sprawling landscape of Iceland as a constant reminder of what is at stake.

“Woman at War” also doesn’t shy away from asking challenging questions about Halla’s tactics. The local economic implications of Halla’s destruction of the power plant come up, as do the international mechaniations behind the environmental destruction. It comes into question whether Halla really can make a difference. Her work is not a definitive answer to these large-scale problems, but Geirharðsdóttir does a commendable job in communicating Halla’s steadfast dedication to her principles and simultaneous internal conflict.

Though the film deals with fairly heavy subjects, it also maintains a self-awareness and levity that keeps it from becoming sanctimonious or droll. Halla’s exploits are accompanied by a three-piece band that drifts in and out of the scenery adding a light comedic oom-pa-pa soundtrack as Halla works to take down the polluters. In one particularly funny scene, the band members actually get involved in Halla’s work, retweeting her environmental manifesto from their phones.

The soundtrack is also augmented with a Ukrainian chorus, which provides some emotional vocalizing as Halla contends with the implications of adoption considering her risky lifestyle choices. These two musical groups serve almost as a check-in throughout the film, escalating or highlighting Halla’s emotional states while at the same time becoming characters of their own.

The cast in “Woman at War” is small, with Halla as the undeniable focus and Geirharðsdóttir carries much of the film. Jóhann Sigurðarson plays Sveinbjörn, Halla’s “alleged cousin” who becomes a de facto accomplice in her crusade. Juan Camillo Roman Estrada plays Juan Camillo, a wayward tourist who inadvertently gets mixed up in Halla’s work in a comedic punchline that plays out one too many times. The small cast of characters works, however, and allows for a more complete portrait of Halla — with these side characters jumping in to advance or question her journey.

The end of the film veers toward full comedy as Halla’s two life paths — her activism and her chance to be a mother — converge. This isn’t an earth-shaking film and it sometimes comes off as overly eccentric. But it is a nice piece about one woman’s attempts to do what is right, both on the large scale of the environment and on the personal level of helping a child in need.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].