Review: ‘Woman at War’ is wall-to-wall wacky, and wonderful

Film Critic

Not to get all alliterative about it, but “Woman at War” is something wonderful. Made with a finely honed sense of the ridiculous as well as unexpected emotion, this modern Icelandic saga is completely serious about its wall-to-wall wackiness, which of course is the only way to go.

Director and co-writer Benedikt Erlingsson has chosen to start his film, which he puckishly describes as a “mainstream blockbuster story for everyone,” with a scene that could have come from a whole other kind of movie.

To a military drumroll, a metal arrow is put into a bow and aim carefully taken. We hold our breath, wondering if we’re watching a trained assassin, or maybe a celebrated big game hunter, but the target aimed at is something very different.


A woman named Halla shoots at a huge electrical pylon, causing widespread power outages. She wants to sabotage a nearby aluminum plant and dissuade multinational corporations from coming in, damaging the environment and opening the door to global warming.

It turns out Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharosdóttir) is a dedicated eco-warrior — what we have witnessed is her fifth such attack — so successful that news reports talk darkly of “organized sabotage by a foreign terrorist network.” In reality, it’s just her.

Though these issues are serious, and though Halla herself insists “I am not a criminal, I am trying to prevent crimes against us,” there is something slyly ridiculous about the way the whole business is treated by Erlingsson and his co-writer, Olafur Egill Egilsson.

For example, getting away clean from her latest attack requires Halla to solicit the help of Sveinbjorn (Johann Sigurdarson), a grumpy, overweight farmer in bib overalls who might just be her unacknowledged second cousin.

Indisputably adding to the humor is the unusual way “Woman at War” has chosen to deal with its music. Instead of simply putting melodies on the soundtrack, director Erlingsson has chosen to have them played live on screen by a three-person trio, musicians who pay attention to the action but are gloriously unseen by the actors.

In her non-terrorist life, Halla is someone very different, a peace-loving choirmaster who has large pictures of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela on her living room walls and smiles at everyone she meets.

Halla and her yoga-teaching twin sister, Asa, are both impeccably played by top Icelandic actress Geirharosdottir, someone with the skill to make the film’s exactly calibrated character delineation effective.

Helped by Baldvin (Jorundur Ragnarsson), a friendly mole inside the Icelandic government, Halla is trying to decide if she should quit the bow-and-arrow stuff while she’s ahead and issue the ecological manifesto she’s been planning.

With American thermal cameras preparing to monitor Iceland’s highlands from space and even Israeli operatives getting into the act, Halla is leaning toward mothballing her weapon when life throws her a curve.

A surprise phone call reveals that an application Halla made years earlier to adopt a child has unexpectedly been acted on, and a woeful-looking 4-year-old girl, complete with a backstory that would draw tears from a stone, is ready for her to pick up in war-torn Ukraine.

As Halla tries to balance the appeal of activism with the joys of impending motherhood, “Woman of War” ups the ante by introducing a three-voice Ukrainian choir, all in native dress, who sing up a storm at key decision-making points.

With a masterful melding of the serious, the comic, the ridiculous and the musical, “Woman at War” is joyful to experience though difficult to sum up. It may not have won this year’s foreign language Oscar or even made the short list of nominees, but its kind of delicious absurdist fun is always in too short supply.


‘Woman at War’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse, Pasadena; Town Center, Encino