The Icelandic film Woman at War practically opens like a call to arms, complete with drums and a woman indeed heroically taking aim with a bow and arrow. If the fact that she’s dressed in modern clothing and shooting at power lines adds a sense of surrealness, actually seeing the band who’s supplying the dramatic music nearby on the grass – complete with piano, tuba, and drums – and apparently unnoticed by the woman, only makes it more so. It’s enough to make a critic wonder just what she’s gotten herself into.
Turns out, there’s little to worry about, as things quickly began to make sense. Well, the movie never really explains the band, preferring to let it be all in good fun in a fashion that’s as offbeat as it is endearing. But the woman with the wicked aim, and pretty soon, a need to flee the scene, turns out to be Hala (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), who has decided to single-handedly take on powerful aluminum interests to prevent them from wreaking further damage on the gorgeously rendered environment in Iceland.
Hala has complicated her life, needless to say, and she turns out to be similarly complicated. She may be a fugitive, but she is by no means living the stereotypical life of the radical activist holed up in a remote location, peacefully but perilously living off the land. She actually has a cushy middle class life in the city, and she sheds her rough clothes to fit the image accordingly when she returns to it. Hala feels with every fiber of her being that something has to be done, and that what she’s doing is unquestionably right. She is so devoted to her path she refuses to lie low, even as those powerful interests slowly begin closing in on her.
Yet Hala’s chaotically ordered life threatens to derail even further when she discovers that the adoption she applied for years earlier has finally come through, and she has been approved to mother a four-year-old girl in the Ukraine who has been orphaned and traumatized by war. As Hala becomes equally devoted to these diverging paths, the likelihood of her evading capture and completing her mission so she can become the mother she so longs to be begins to seem like an impossible dream. As her twin sister Ása (also played by Geirharðsdóttir) points out, it seldom ends well for people who decide to take up arms against the system. Ása may be an idealist like her sister – albeit one more devoted to inner fulfillment via the spirituality provided by yoga – but she’s far more of a realist than Hala.
Make no mistake, director/co-writer Benedikt Erlingsson is unmistakably on Hala’s side, and he’s skilled enough to turn her story into a non-escapist crowd-pleaser rather than another forgettable, overly serious thriller. It’s just that Erlingsson’s clear affection for his characters (including a gruff but warm-hearted farmer who aids Hala in her cause) doesn’t prevent him from conveying the consequences of even the most righteous battles. Hala is driven by a need to be devoted to something, whether it’s a child or a cause. If this is shown in a rather on-the-nose fashion by having her draw up all her sabotage plans in a room once meant for the child she thought would never come into her life, it’s forgivable. Woman at War even manages to include a commentary on racism, with a young black man being repeatedly arrested by police simply for happening to be nearby when many of the film’s most turbulent events occur. And if some might also be able to guess the film’s ending, it’s still a deeply satisfying one in a film that’s as committed to addressing pressing issues as it is to asking just why we have to be so serious while we do.