Wednesday 3 June 2020

Fighting back: "Woman at War"

A little over a year after a much-acclaimed theatrical bow, Woman at War returns to the docket for reassessment as a MUBI streaming option. I'm guessing some bright spark felt it'd make a particularly apt double-bill with last month's debutant The County, for here is another genre-bending Icelandic item in which an auburn-haired middle-aged woman in natty knitwear sticks it to the Man - the variance being that Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), heroine of Benedikt Erlingsson's film, is an environmental activist taking up arms against a Chinese-owned smelting plant, thus someone defending the land rather than working on it. The question this sudden one-two combination prompts is this: what has Iceland, as represented by this engaging pair of films, figured out that the rest of the world is still struggling to come to terms with? You can see how the stories Woman at War and The County tell might take root in a country with a distaff Prime Minister: they surely speak to national self-image as much as it did when Richard Curtis recruited Hugh Grant to play the Blairish PM in Love, Actually. Possibly the films also reflect a wider social willingness to allow women to make their case. The credits reveal Woman at War had three main producers, Erlingsson and two women (Carine Leblanc and Marianne Sage), and the resulting film appears to be informed as much by that fact as by anything in its script.

The framing, however, remains every bit as eccentric as it was in Erlingsson's 2013 breakthrough Of Horses and Men - too eccentric, indeed, for Woman at War to slide into the flimsy, market-driven virtue-signalling of the MCU. For one thing, the characterisation here comes at the viewer backwards. Halla is introduced in the manner of an action heroine, the movie illustrating from the off just why TV news has dubbed this outlaw figure The Mountain Woman: first seen firing a crossbolt over a power line to cut the factory's electricity supply, she then has to run and duck for cover when security helicopters head her way, no easy feat in a landscape this conspicuously exposed. Only then does Erlingsson reveal what his protagonist does by day, and how her status as a chorister and potential foster mother provides her with something like the ideal cover. The point is made - quick-thinking, reactive women really do have the advantage on us ploddingly linear men when it comes to multitasking - but it gets made counterintuitively. And there are oddnesses beside. Halla has a twin sister (again played by Geirharðsdóttir) who feels instinctively like a symbolic presence, a spiritual representation of sisterhood; meanwhile, the score is being performed by musicians and singers nudged into the backs and sides of shot. It's as if, having ushered his daredevil heroine centre stage, Erlingsson realised he could only impose himself by futzing about in the margins. (He's like one of those recessive tech geeks spied in the background of Killing Eve, altogether in awe of the tough dames upfront.) 

Though Woman at War wends its way towards a truly resonant closing image, I think I ultimately preferred The County, which seemed less cluttered by quirk, although I'll concede that quirk may be an integral part of the film's appeal for some: there almost certainly haven't been enough movies in which middle-aged women get to wield crossbows and blocks of Semtex, which is presumably why Erlingsson's film caught the eyes it did first time round. Since its initial run, Woman at War has been snapped up for an American remake - its own marker of success - with Jodie Foster attached to star and direct from an Erlingsson screenplay; I suspect that'll be a more conventional retelling, though it may equally benefit from being shephered onto our screens by a creative prime mover who knows all too well a woman's capability when it comes to getting things done against the odds. For the record: at the time of writing, Iceland - led by Katrín Jakobsdóttir since 2017 - has reported 1,806 cases of the Coronavirus, and after setting nationwide testing in place in January and successfully launching a track-and-trace app at the start of April, 1,794 of those patients have made a full recovery. Anyone watching on from any country where a male leader has blustered, obfuscated, procrastinated or absented themselves from responsibility altogether would surely now admit there are advantages to be gained from letting women get on with running the world, the avoidance of death being foremost among them.

Woman at War is currently available to stream via Curzon and Amazon Prime; it will be available to stream on MUBI UK from tomorrow.

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