Review: Woman at War

It’s interesting that Jodie Foster is thinking about doing a Hollywood remake of this extraordinary Icelandic fantasy, because it seems so resistant to the kind of pat familiarities that Hollywood trades in these days. The hook is understandably appealing: Unassuming single middle-aged woman looking for purpose in her life becomes an underground eco-terrorist who garners headlines and stirs controversy aboveground. And while director Benedikt Erlingsson handles the action portions of the tale with flair and humor, he’s more interested in the philosophical ramifications of our hero’s quest. Altruism is many-sided and complicated to a fault. Sometimes you have to give up one good thing in order to get another.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir) is a middle class matron who teaches music and leads her church choir in a rural suburb of Reykjavik. For years she has been trying to adopt a child from overseas, and while the roots of Halla’s terrorist activities are not interrogated very carefully, they seem to spring at least partly from her frustration with being unable to realize her dream of raising a child. In any case, as the movie opens Halla is already in ninja mode, cutting power lines with her trusty bow and arrow in order to shut down an aluminum plant while dodging helicopters and drones. With the help of a sympathetic farmer, she is able to escape capture.

But it’s not as if Halla is secretive about her ecological activism. She eschews cars and supports green initiatives, even if it sometimes involves climbing on people’s roofs to distribute anti-government leaflets. Her secret alter ego is eventually dubbed “Mountain Woman” by the media, which intensifies the authorities’ manhunt, and at times the threat to her well-being seems downright deadly, though Erlingsson continually undercuts the drama and suspense with oddly fantastic touches, such as musical groups that keep popping up in the most unlikely places, adding a kind of Greek Chorus effect to the proceedings. However, the real kicker is the sudden news that, after all these years, Halla’s adoption request comes through just as the police are closing in on her. At this point, her twin sister (also played by Geirharosdottir), whose earth-friendly activities are more spiritual in nature, takes on a larger and more significant role in the plot. The titular idea that these are women who are fighting the powers-that-be takes a unique but hardly surprising turn in the final act.

The director, it should be noted, also made the equally peculiar Of Horses and Men, which was funnier but also more discomfiting. Woman at War successfully telescopes a local problem into a story that is both universal and disarmingly personal, and those are the kinds of stories that Hollywood used to be good at.

In Icelandic and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Woman at War home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Slot Machine-Guildrengurinn-Solar Media Entertainment-Ukrainian State Film Agency-Koggull Filmworks-Vintage Pictures

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