Woman at War (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her comically defiant activism

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“Woman at War”, which was selected as the Icelandic entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, is a dry black comedy film packed with whimsical touches to delight us. While steadily and seriously maintaining its deadpan attitude along with its defiant heroine, the movie often catches us off guard via a series of oddly humorous moments, and we gladly come to go along with that while rooting more for the heroine of the film.

The story mainly revolves around Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a choir conductor who has recently become quite radical for her social/political belief. During the opening scene, she is cutting off the power line supplying electricity to some big aluminum plant located in the middle of the highlands region of Iceland, and we later come to learn that this is her latest act of sabotage for stopping the rise of global capitalism, which is a serious theater to society as well as environment in her viewpoint.

Once her latest mission is accomplished, we see how Halla cleverly evades the pursuit of the local police. When a helicopter is coming toward her, she instantly finds a spot where she can hide, and she also happens to be helped by a local farmer, who is willing to borrow his old car to her because, well, he does not welcome much that industrial change coming upon his area.

In addition, it later turns out that Halla has an informant in the Icelandic government, who happens to one of her choir members. Quite nervous about whatever is committed by her, her informant always makes sure that there is no possibility of being wiretapped, and there is a running gag involved with where they put their smartphones during their clandestine meeting.

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Meanwhile, there comes an unexpected news to Halla. Around four years ago, she applied for adoption without much expectation, but now she is notified that she is selected as a foster parent candidate for some little orphan girl in Ukraine, and that makes her ongoing situation a little more complicated. She is willing to continue to fight for her supposedly noble cause, but raising a child will certainly demand a lot from her, and she becomes more conflicted while going through the procedures for adoption as required.

Halla chooses her twin sister Ása, who is also played by Geirharðsdóttir, as the backup custodian for that child , but, though she also applied for adoption at the same time, Ása is mostly occupied with taking her spiritual journey in India at present. That means Halla must be more serious about taking care of that Ukrainian child, but she still finds herself driven by her cause – especially when the Icelandic government and police come to push her further with their retaliation strategies against her radical activism.

Things accordingly get more tense and serious when Halla becomes determined to go further in response, but the screenplay by director Benedikt Erlingsson and his co-writer Ólafur Egill Egilsson, which won the SACD award when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, keeps maintaining its lightweight sense of deadpan humor as continuously providing small and big moments for laughs. While we are tickled a lot by how Halla manages to go through a police checkpoint with a vehicle containing a substantial amount of explosive material, we also get a good laugh from how boldly Halla tries to shoot down a drone at one point, and then there is a very unlucky foreign guy who frequently functions as an unintentional decoy to draw the attention of the police.

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The most amusing element in the film comes from a trio of musicians who always appear along with the offbeat score by Davíð Þór Jónsson. Whenever Halla makes any decisive action on the screen, these musicians phlegmatically play tuba, keyboard, and percussion in the background while also accompanied with a trio of Ukrainian folk singers from time to time, and that surely accentuates the absurdities surrounding her increasingly silly circumstance.

Firmly holding the center without any misstep, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is dryly hilarious in her staunch comic performance. Besides willing to throw herself into a number of outrageous moments including the one when her character has to hide below a bunch of lambs, she deftly handles several key scenes between Halla and her twin sister, and that is one of the main reasons why their last scene works while balanced well between comedy and drama.

In case of a few substantial supporting performers around Geirharðsdóttir, they are also effectively funny with their serious attitude. While Jörundur Ragnarsson is hysterical as Halla’s neurotic informant, Jóhann Sigurðarson is solid as a no-nonsense rural guy who comes to like Halla a lot after their accidental encounter, and Juan Camillo Roman Estrada earns our pity as that unfortunate foreign dude.

“Woman at War” is the second feature film directed by Erlingsson, who previously debuted with “Of Horses and Men” (2013). Although I have not watched that film yet, those funny moments in “Woman at War” show that he is a good filmmaker who knows how to amuse and entertain us, and it will be interesting to see what will come next from him. In short, this is one of funnier films I saw during this year, and I wholeheartedly recommend you to give it a chance someday.

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