Review: Climate change tale 'Woman at War' is variably comedic, odd, thrilling


If you believe in science, climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity. Each new day moves us closer to the point of no return. But with an issue this complex, how does one person even begin to do something?

That’s the question at the heart of Woman at War, a genre-blurring narrative from director Benedikt Erlingsson. It’s the story of a middle-aged choir director named Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), who spends her free time trekking the Icelandic highlands and sabotaging the country’s aluminum industry. For Halla, there’s little uncertainty about how to act and no doubt whatsoever about the virtue behind her deeds.

“What I have done,” she tells a new friend early in the movie, “I believe with all my heart to be right.”

After downing some power lines and aggravating local bigwigs, Halla discovers that the adoption application she put in four years ago has finally gone through. Now she must decide whether her eco-warrior moonlighting is worth the risk of missing out on motherhood.

Though it’s clear where the film’s affections lie, Woman at War presents itself through an almost objective lens, serving as a means for discourse more than anything. It’s didactic to be sure, but simply curious above all, with Erlingsson pondering geopolitics, definitions of eco-terrorism, and the lengths to which ordinary people should go in the fight against climate change. Halla may be resolved, but for the audience there are no easy answers.

Woman at War may sound a bit highbrow. Yet Erlingsson’s clever genre play makes for a story that’s variably comedic, odd, and thrilling. When Halla considers the orphaned Ukranian girl she’s planning to adopt, the filmmaker treats the movie like a tender drama. When she interacts with the three-piece band providing the soundtrack, the vibe turns indie quirky. And when our heroine becomes hellbent on stopping The Powers That Be, Woman at War shifts into an outright action movie. As Halla puts her bow and arrow to use and leverages highland hiding spots to evade the police,Woman at War begins to resemble The Revenant or even Rambo more than any stuffy art piece.

If there’s a knock against it, it’s that Woman at War comes off at times as a bit unpolished. The band’s appearances are hit-or-miss, and a subplot centered on the arrest of a Spanish tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) never reaches a satisfying conclusion.

The movie’s flaws are easily forgivable though, and Erlingsson deserves credit for trying to make something unique. Woman at War is already slated for an American remake courtesy of Jodie Foster, so there’s obviously plenty done right here.

Erlingsson and company walk a few fine lines and establish a decidedly different kind of think piece. As movies reflect our collective conscious, an influx of climate change dramas is as expected as it is necessary, and it’s nice to see Woman at War setting a high bar. Though this is probably only the tip of the melting iceberg.

Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
Starring: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada
Theater: Lagoon Cinema, now showing