Wednesday 20 May 2020

Woman at war: "The County"

Grímur Hákonarson is the Icelandic writer-director whose Rams, that disarming tale of feuding fraternal sheep farmers, became an unexpected word-of-mouth hit at the UK box office back in 2016. His follow-up The County occupies markedly similar territory - if it hasn't been shot on the same stretch of farmland, it unfolds not too far from that frozen track - but adopts an altogether more shaded tone. From the struggles of his country's yeomen to survive, this filmmaker now fashions not another jolly, wild-and-woolly comedy, but something generically closer to Nordic noir - though even that label wouldn't quite be accurate in the end. For starters, though, it presents us with a bejumpered, redheaded heroine in Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), a middle-aged dairy farmer who receives a dread midnight phone call to inform her that her truckdriver husband has perished in a road accident. What she doesn't know, but we do, is that the last trip hubby made before his rig leapt off the road and into the void was to the offices of the farmers' co-operative he'd intended to exit. Thereafter, we huddle up to watch Inga raising difficult questions - both about co-op practice and her husband's demise - via her Facebook page, waiting for secrets to be made public, the truth to out. Hákonarson has evidently retained some of Rams' heady regional quirk - it's as though someone had made their fraught dealings with John Lewis the basis of a Gordon Willis-hued mafia movie, or a range Western - but it's turned several degrees less comforting: a brief shot of a slurry pit into which a body could all too easily fall sends a chill down the spine that has nothing to do with the onscreen climate.

That shot serves as yet another indication of just what an assured and economical storyteller Hákonarson is, whatever genre he's working in. His latest clocks in at 92 minutes, and displays not much in the way of fuss or fat: we soon intuit he knows this land - its feeding rituals and power structures, how its residents come together for better and worse - and so he doesn't have to waste time with unnecessary exposition or scene-setting. He has the considerable advantage of a central performance that will likely get the viewer on side very quickly indeed. Egilsdóttir makes Inga a tenacious, practical woman - we first see her delivering a calf, apparently for real, amniotic sac fans - who's not sentimental or easily rattled. One of The County's bigger idiosyncrasies is that its heroine is forever on the offensive: she responds to a threat from one suit by shovelling manure over his Mercedes-Benz, and later stages a tremendous PR stunt involving a tanker full of milk outside the organisation's headquarters. Whatever they do to or with her livestock, here is a woman who simply will not be cowed, who insists on taking the fight to the opposition - one reason I suspect the film may well click with audiences as Rams did before it.

Rams, of course, had a familiar element of grumpy-old-man comedy to nudge it closer to the mainstream; about an hour into The County, I found myself pondering the small miracle that anybody had made a film quite this engrossing on a subject as apparently arcane as the finer points and politics of Icelandic dairy farming. One reason for that may be that it's not exclusively about Icelandic dairy farming - or, rather, that Hákonarson achieves the dramatist's holy grail of being both hyper-specific and yet somehow universal. The County meshes with all those recent news reports about fresh-faced, fresher-thinking women taking up positions in the Icelandic cabinet, yes, but it's also fascinated by something bigger still: the fraught processes by which societies of any kind reorder and reorganise themselves, and what happens when individuals resist the dominant faction and go looking for new models - so as not to finish up in the shit. Here is a story, in short, that could have been told just about anywhere in the Western world this century, with regional variations; it just so happens to have been told in this chilly neck of the woods, with considerable skill, by a filmmaker who really has come to feel like a blast of bracingly fresh Arctic air.

The County will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from Friday.

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