The intensely moving Icelandic drama “Woman at War” poses an intriguing question: Is it better to try to save the world, or just one person in it?
Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is in her 40s, and known around her Icelandic town as the community choir director. What her neighbors don’t know is that she’s also waging a one-woman battle against the massive aluminum smelter that the Icelandic government and the Chinese have built near town. (We’re told the smelter is being operated by the international mining and metals conglomerate Rio Tinto, owners of Utah’s own Kennecott copper mine.)
When the movie starts, we see Halla with a bow and arrow, shooting a cable over power lines to short them out. But as her actions grow bolder, she fears the authorities are on her trail. She has to run across fields, ducking for cover when police helicopters approach. As a precaution, she puts her cellphone in the freezer to keep anyone from spying on her.
In the midst of this, Halla gets a letter from an adoption agency to which she sent an application four years earlier. The letter says there is a little girl in Ukraine, Nina, whose parents were killed in the war there, who is available for adoption, but Halla has to move fast.
Besides the worry that a child is arriving while Halla is in the middle of her eco-terrorism spree, there’s the matter that the adoption agency requires Halla to have a backup guardian — and the main candidate, Halla’s twin sister Ása (also played by Geirharðsdóttir) is leaving soon for a two-year sabbatical meditating at an Indian ashram.
Director Benedikt Erlingsson, who co-wrote with Ólafur Egilsson, creates a portrait of a woman’s determination that is by turns whimsical and thought-provoking. It’s a complex scenario, as viewers may disagree with Halla’s methods of industrial sabotage, but still find themselves rooting for her to get away with it. And Erlingsson does it while providing Halla with her own tension-twisting theme music, with an onscreen trio of musicians — a drummer, tuba player and pianist/accordionist — and three Ukrainian singers.
“Woman at War” rides on the shoulders of Geirharðsdóttir, and she carries the load effortlessly. In her dual role, she shows both steely resolve and inner calm, as the two sisters’ journeys ultimately merge into one. It’s a tricky balancing act, and she pulls it off flawlessly.
‘Woman at War’
Opened March 1 in select cities; opens Friday, March 22, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably R for nudity, language and some violence. Running time: 101 minutes, in Icelandic, with subtitles.