Woman at War (2018)
Written by Benedikt Erlingsson and Ólafur Egilsson
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
One of the biggest challenges of modernity is figuring out how to live a life while still fighting against an increasingly insidious and destructive system that is breaking down our environment. It’s becoming impossible to deny that the planet is under extreme duress and that environmental collapse is imminent in the next few decades if drastic changes aren’t implemented soon. How do we function in our jobs, with our families, and as part of communities while this grim specter of species doom hangs over our heads? Halla is a woman who has taken the defense of the environment to an extreme but now faces a choice that challenges who she has become.
Hall is a choir director who lives a double life as an eco-activist, sneaking out under cover of darkness taking down the powerlines that keep an aluminum plant that she sees as a threat to the local environment. It’s also a symbol of creeping global corporatism which has led to business interests from America and China to come to her home in Iceland. The news comes that her application to adopt a Ukranian orphan has been accepted. Once Halla sees the picture of little Nika, her future daughter, she suddenly goes into an emotional tailspin, conflicted about her duty to shape a world that is safe for Nika but also the need for a parent to not take such risks to make sure they are with their child.
Woman at War takes some liberties with reality, first that anyone doing what Halla does would be able to keep it going without being caught for so long. This is helped by an interesting decision to have the score of the film, Icelandic folk music, and traditional songs from Ukraine, performed in the scene by people that appear at first to be invisible to the other characters. It’s only late in the film when Halla begins to acknowledge their presence, which isn’t necessarily breaking the fourth wall but is definitely poking holes in it.
The story of Halla is part-heist with her desire to pull off one last job, which of course goes south and leaves her on the run from authorities who are much better prepared this time. The other part is a serious meditation on the responsibility of the present for the future. Halla shares the anxieties of Reverend Ernst Toller from First Reformed. Both are people with strong principles and beliefs who are presented with challenges to them centered around the destruction of the environment. While Toller is being awakened to this crisis and attempting to discover how much he is willing to risk, Halla is deciding if she can stop from fighting so intensely, all the time to help foster the very future she is trying to save.
The war in the title is most definitely a cold one, and arguably a conflict Halla is fighting with herself. There are a group of inept police and drones that show up in the second act, but they never really feel like a threat. It’s Halla and the mistakes she makes that lead to the film’s finale. Part of what Halla is moving towards is an understanding that you cannot save the planet alone, and by the end of the movie, there is a small but growing number of supporters. We also see her framed against the immense challenge of repairing the environment, further emphasizing how much she needs help. There are no answers to the big questions in Woman at War; instead, it helps soothe those anxieties and remind us we’re not alone.