They call her The Mountain Woman. Singlehandedly waging a war against corporate behemoths who destroy the planet in order to line their own pockets, she has become the scourge of businesses, the Icelandic government and the authorities. The severing of power lines is her method of choice, and no one knows where she will strike next.
And even fewer know her real identity. Who could suspect that The Mountain Woman is really Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a 49 year-old who makes her living as a choir leader? Whilst Woman At War contains sequences that wouldn’t seem out of place in an action movie, the emotional crux arrives when Halla is notified that after four years on a waiting list, there is finally a little girl ready for her to adopt in the Ukraine. Torn between her activism and incipient motherhood, Halla faces a crossroads.
Your tolerance for Woman At War will depend on your opinion of the band that pops up in almost every other scene. The three bearded men – one playing a tuba, one a piano, one a drum – appear more than any character except Halla. Sometimes they are joined by three female folk singers in traditional Ukrainian dress. The musicians work as a kind of Greek Chorus, although they do not comment on the action the way a traditional Greek Chorus would. They’re just there. Being quirky.
If director Benedikt Erlingsson had deployed the band only a few times over the course of the film, then perhaps they would have been tolerable. Funny even – which is probably what he was going for. The fact that he uses them so often, however, means that they rapidly become annoying. It’s a one note joke that gets played to death.
The worst thing about the musicians though, is how regularly they tear you away from the action. Erlingsson appears more besotted with the band than with the story he is trying to tell. With aggravating frequency, moments that needed time to breathe are interrupted because – oh look, a tuba! It borders on maddening.Woman At War had so much potential. After a terrifying recent study by the UN found that the world had just twelve years left to prevent a climate catastrophe, global warming has soared to the forefront of many people’s minds. Dissatisfaction with apathetic politicians is rampant. Halla’s battle could hardly be timelier. Add in the complicating factor of her new child and the fertile ground of the personal vs. the political that she introduces, and you’ve got plenty of material for a thought-provoking drama. So you’d think, anyway.
In addition to the timely subject matter, there’s also Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who makes for a compelling heroine. She excels in both the action movie moments, and the (rare) quieter scenes. Then there’s Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s cinematography, which makes ravishing use of Iceland’s rugged landscapes. Any director would count themselves lucky to have such talent on their team.
Yet despite all the cinematic tools at his disposal, Erlingsson plumps for quirk over substance at every juncture. As a result, Woman At War is as flimsy as it is frustrating.