In the 2014-15 season, a triumvirate of films appeared that set the benchmark for Icelandic cinema in the 2010s. That spring there was Dagur Kári’s 4th film, ‘Virgin Mountain’ (‘Fúsi’) and Grímur Hákonarson’s sophomore breakthrough ‘Ram’s (‘Hrútar’). The autumn before, the first film by veteran theatre artist Benedikt Erlingsson, ‘Of Horses and Men’ (‘Hross í oss’), won the Nordic Council Film Prize, an Icelandic first, although it had actually been released the year before domestically to little fanfare. All dealt, in different ways, with the loneliness of the Icelandic male in various life phases, and, in some cases, that of the Icelandic horse, too.
This year, another trio has appeared that seems to show the way forward, and this time all the main protagonists are female. There was the first film by Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir, ‘The Swan’ (‘Svanurinn’), and then came ‘And Breathe Normally’ (‘Og andið eðlilega’), another first-time feature, this time by Ísold Uggadóttir. And now there is ‘A Woman Goes to War’ (‘Kona fer í stríð’), Benedikt’s follow-up to ‘Horses.’ Unlike the first triumvirate, each one of these films tackles political issues of the day directly.
Eco-terrorism has had a bad name in Iceland ever since Sea Shepherd sunk whaling boats in Reykjavík harbour in 1986, but times have changed following the campaign against the damning of the Highlands, and we are now finally ready for heroes who price nature above private property.
Benedikt bravely drops us in where most films might be concluding. Halla has been sabotaging power lines with the aid of a bow, arrow and a mole in a ministry for quite a while to try to prevent the environmental destruction caused by the country’s many aluminium smelters, which have been one of the main political bones of contention of this century. Halla is close to capture, and has to call it a day after submitting her manifesto with the aim of changing public opinion.
Cleverly, the stakes are soon raised. Halla is eligible to adopt an orphan girl from war-torn Ukraine, which will of course become impossible if she has a criminal record. This raises some interesting questions. Is it more worthwhile to try to influence big issues, perhaps to no avail, than to save the life of a single person? And is there any point in self-improvement while our planet is being torn apart?
But this is not the Icelandic ‘Turk 182.’ In the age of fake news, the government is quick to put a spin on things and the heroic Halla is blamed for lowering the country’s credit trust in this paranoid post-collapse era. It’s hard to save the world with Semtex. There are no easy answers or cheering crowds at the end of it.
But the film is not without flaws. Whereas ‘Horses’ was really like nothing seen before, here we find a miscellany of well or lesser known tropes. The live orchestra is reminiscent of ‘Kusturica’ but is at least consistent. Twins should be used sparingly as a plot device, and bring to mind episodes of ‘Arrested Development,’ though both sisters are deftly played by the wonderful Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir. And Benedikt, after his previous success, now has more access to foreign funding and probably feels compelled to include cutesy postcards of women on bikes in Reykjavik, or speaking on the phone next to landmarks.
Benedikt is no doubt one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Iceland today and this is a well-above-average picture. But given the noble intentions and the talent involved, it can feel a little underwhelming at times.
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