Woman at War is an absurd ecological action movie fairytale – amongst other things

Star Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir and director Benedikt Erlingsson on their unique eco-thriller, inspiration and what constitutes an action movie.

Woman at War Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir Benedikt Erlingsson
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir stars in Woman at War, directed by Benedikt Erlingsson

By day, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is an unassuming middle-aged choir director clad in sensibly Nordic sweaters and possessing a sensible Nordic sweetness. By night, however, she wages a one-woman battle against Rio Tinto, the multinational that’s slowly but surely working its way through the Icelandic landscape. Halla sneaks out undetected to the country and attempts to take down power lines with a bow and arrow; her attempts are successful enough to have the media on the lookout for a mysterious Mountain Woman wreaking havoc on capitalist totems. Halla’s selfless quest for justice is thrown into disarray when she receives a letter announcing that, after years and years of being on a waiting list, she has finally been approved to adopt a Ukrainian child. Being a mother is rather at odds with her current schedule of spending her free time trying to take down a corporation, and the news forces Halla to modify her approach.

Woman at War is sort of impossible to describe succinctly. It’s an eco-thriller, an absurd comedy, an earnest drama and a sort of angry satire all at once. It’s a film with a gentle yet specific sense of humour, mired (I suppose) in a kind of deadpan Icelandic tone but nevertheless significantly more organic than fellow Nordic satirists of director Benedikt Erlingsson like Aki Kaurismaki or Roy Andersson. Longtime collaborators in the theatre, Erlingsson and Geirharðsdóttir (who Erlingsson describes as “the Icelandic Nina Hagen”) bring the sense of freedom they developed on stage to Woman at War.

“My DOP Bergsteinn and I were playing with that while storyboarding,” says Erlingsson. “Isn’t this an action film? There are some aspects to the film where we directly referred to action films. Usually it means using a long lens to film a subject that is moving while the camera is moving at the same time, so the background is really moving very fast around it. You see a thing like this, you think of action films!”

The action certainly translates to Geirharðsdóttir, who spends a lot of the movie running on uneven terrain, jumping rocks and otherwise doing Tom Cruise-type stuff.

“When I read this script, I thought, ‘Okay, I have to start running!’” she says. “I hadn’t been running for like a year or something like that. When I signed the contract I asked for a running trainer and this and this and this, because I did need to do all this tai chi and bow shooting as well. I used this North Indian pattern of admiring the energy of nature — something that I learned 20, 30 years ago from an American that came to Iceland with a seminar, you know? There were things like this that I had to do, and, of course, it worries you when you have to run on set because you never know how many times they will have to shoot it.

“In the opening of the film, I had to run two kilometres. I run into the camera and in time with the band, because the band is playing,” she continues. “The camera shows the band and it’s actually live music… and I’m running in time with the band! I also have to finish packing my package before leaving the frame because the package stays in the frame. I wind up running two kilometres, even if they don’t show all of it in the film. But I didn’t know how many takes it would take! I had to be able to run at least 10 kilometres — and I had to have form in my body so that audiences could believe that I could actually run across Iceland. That’s why I needed a trainer, to get my focus in the body so that people would believe this woman could actually do it. So, no, it didn’t really worry me, but I was happy when it was over with!

Woman at War Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir Benedikt Erlingsson
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir stars in Woman at War, directed by Benedikt Erlingsson

One of the most striking absurd touches in the film is the presence of an orchestra (three musicians and three singers) who not only score the film but also frequently appear in it, at the edge of the frame or in the background. We soon figure out that whenever there’s music in the film, it’s diegetic — and yet every time Benedikt Erlingsson uses a slow pan to reveal the orchestra, we remember once again that they’re the ones making the music. The musicians are pretty much the only element that breaks the fourth wall, yet they give the film a lot of its charm.

“It comes from the Greek chorus,” says Erlingsson. “The demons and the spirits in the Greek theatre, they talk to the audience but they also talk to the protagonist. The protagonist can also talk to them — it’s an agreement you can make with the public that has been done for 2,000 years, maybe more. It’s not so much used in films, though there are films that have played with those elements. I would mention the Farrelly Brothers in There’s Something About Mary — that was a playful way of having a troubadour in that film… though it was, of course, different. From the point of view of the theatre, this is very common.

“One of the secrets of this film is that it’s a fairytale,” Erlingsson continues. “If there’s some genre that we’re playing with, it’s the genre of the fairytale. I don’t know exactly how to define that fairytale (laughs).”

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir plays Halla but also her twin sister Ása, who we meet in the midst of a soul-search that leads her to live on an ashram. The strangest thing about Ása — and about Geirharðsdóttir’s performance — is that both of the twins aren’t that different. Instead of presenting two sisters on each side of the divide, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir has the much more subtle (and, I imagine, difficult) task of creating two separate characters who aren’t actually that different.

“I had a thought about this,” she says. “Why should I do it any differently than when I do another role? I’ve acted so many roles in my life and it’s all about the intention and how you’re thinking and the energy that you’re challenging your character with. In the theatre, I’ve done lots of performances where I do maybe 20 roles or even 60 roles in the same play! I didn’t really give it much thought. What was important to me was that my stand-in be a real actress, not just a stand-in. There was a good friend of mine, an actress, that actually played both roles as well so I would always have a contact on set. I could really look into her eyes and I could really respond to good acting. This was what was most important to me. I also thought it would be kind of cheap to do something physically with it! I had to be true with both — I could not make two freaks!”

Though Woman at War is concerned with the great issues of our time, it is much less concerned with radicalization. The film begins with Halla already being radicalized against capitalism – we don’t see what (if anything) drove her there, which is the kind of choice that films circling that kind of theme rarely make.

“Mike Leigh said something: show them what you want! (laughs)” says Erlingsson. “It goes all the way down to the storyboards: why show all the travel when what you want to see is her entering the room?  In that sense, I’m not interested in her becoming a radical, because I think it’s obvious. We’ve seen that before. We can understand. In the theatre, we do this a lot — we’re moving the scenario. Shakespeare, you know, he had no problem with scenario, so he could shift from Alexandria to Rome simply by having a character walk in and say ‘O, my Caesar’ and we’d know we’re in Rome. It’s a very simple storytelling theme — agreement!” ■

Woman at War opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 29. Watch the trailer below.

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Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir stars in Woman at War, directed by Benedikt Erlingsson