What can one person do to combat the forces of climate change and globalized industry? Quite a bit, as Benedikt Erlingsson would have us believe in Woman at War, the story of a brazen and bold activist who destroys power lines and takes down factories as a battalion of one against forces far, far greater than her. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is Halla (and her twin sister, Ása), a mild-mannered choir director most days. Other days, she’s the perpetrator of industrial sabotage that’s so perfectly executed it would be impressive if it weren’t so destructive. Only a few close friends know her true identity, and as the media and government employ ever more intense measures to catch “The Woman of the Mountain,” they’re all feeling the pressure to either protect her even more thoroughly…or bail all together.
Nearing fifty, single and without children, Halla is apparently eager to have an impact one way or another on the injustices and poor decisions of her government and country. The film begins as she manages to cut the power to an aluminum plant with the help of archery skills Merida (from Disney’s Brave) would be envious of; she’s so stealth, an unsuspecting immigrant is caught up in the aftermath as the police believe him to be the culprit. In this way, Halla fully embraces that stage in a woman’s life where she has, to put it bluntly, zero fucks left to give. She sees a problem and, ill-conceived as her plan may be, knows she can do something about it––so she does. She’s not waiting for anyone to give her permission, and she’s not waiting for anyone to catch up with her as her activism gets more and more bold.
As enjoyable as a film about a woman unapologetically burning down the patriarchy would undeniably be, Erlingsson and co-writer Ólafur Egilsson expand our understanding of Halla’s world to include the fact that she’d recently applied to adopt a child and, just as her activism hits high gear, she gets word that she’s been matched with a young girl from Ukraine. In an instant, all of Halla’s boldest acts shrink in comparison to this newest potential role: mother. With just herself to account for, just her own life on the line when she tracks down a surveillance drone and smashes it with a rock, risk looks differently than it does when there’s a child counting on you. How Halla navigates this life-altering news (with the help of her yoga-centered twin sister) speaks volumes to her overall motivations. This is not a woman out to cause chaos simply for chaos’s sake.
A hint of the nonsensical makes it into Erlingsson’s narrative, as the pulsing, percussive score is revealed to be provided by a troupe of musicians who follow Halla around from encounter to encounter. At one point, Icelandic folk singers join them, their haunting harmonies lingering over the film’s more thoughtful moments. Their presence is both inventive and meaningful; Halla spends her life seeking harmony and consonance, an equilibrium where all the various elements at play are in accordance with each other. Whether that’s the despicable actions of corporations and governments, or her own search for meaning and purpose, it’s all in an effort to right wrongs, to balance the imbalanced.
Several theatrical releases of late have examined the theme of women coming into their own, of creating lives of their choosing and living with the consequences, for better or worse. From Captain Marvel to Gloria Bell, it’s a welcome change of pace to see the various interpretations of this journey versus its male counterpart, and within a variety of genres at that. The addition of the twin sister, a woman genetically identical yet immensely different, offers an interesting twist, as we simultaneously glimpse two iterations of the same person. Woman at War might have been just as engrossing a film were it centered around a man and his twin brother; but even if we haven’t seen that before, haven’t we seen that before?