On the same day that Captain Marvel was released, another female superhero stormed into American theaters, armed with a bow-and-arrow and ready to save the world. This one comes from Iceland and doubles as a choir director; when she's not struggling to file the adoption paperwork for a young girl from wartorn Ukraine, she spends her time blowing up electrical pylons and distributing eco-terrorist manifestos from the rooftops of buildings in Reykjavik. The ravages of capitalism and the global waste it engenders have led us to climate change, the manifestos urgently read; the only way to avoid our imminent destruction of the planet is to take down the corporations responsible for it. The woman is 49-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), whose sketchy backstory and uncanny ability to thwart multinational corporations and their security teams would be preposterous if the movie didn't sidestep their illogicality so blithely. But Woman at War mostly works as wish-fulfillment fantasy, conjuring images of a lone vigilante confronting the end of the world more strikingly and movingly than Marvel Studios ever could.
Superhero movies are probably my least favorite subgenre, especially in their Marvel/DC iterations, which represent the mind-numbing McDonald's-ization of cinema. Woman at War isn't free of the blatant flaws that typically mar these movies—namely a disinterest in believable characters and an overly ironic, glib style that too frequently pats the audience on the back—but at least here, the social and economic contexts of apocalypse and vigilantism are emphasized.
Halla's agenda isn't made very clear. She appears to be working with a bureaucrat from the Icelandic government, Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson), who also serves on the board for a major utility corporation, and the movie suggests they're both part of a larger insurgency with higher-ups that occasionally give them orders. At the same time, Halla is portrayed as a lone wolf, a "Mountain Woman" as the media starts calling her, shooting down drone cameras that pursue her through the mountains and hiding from infrared cameras inside the innards of dead sheep. I don't necessarily think every plot point needs to be carefully elaborated (especially when the concept is as outlandish as this one), but clearly the backstory of the world of the film hasn't been carefully thought out.
More compelling, perhaps, is Halla's longstanding attempt to become a mother through adoption and her relationship with her twin sister Ása (also played by Geirharðsdóttir). Halla and Ása are studies in different forms of commitment: while Halla believes political activism makes the most immediate impact, Ása is a Buddhist who thinks inner transcendence can change the world one mantra at a time. Neither approach is dismissed, although Ása (who doesn't know about her sister's militant actions) denounces the extremism of the "Mountain Woman," calling it violent and irresponsible. Anyone who's taken a screenwriting class (or read A Tale of Two Cities) knows that when two characters look alike, they will almost inevitably be involved in a grand, climactic role-swapping scenario. When that moment arrives in Woman at War, it's hard to believe on a narrative level, but does raise thought-provoking questions about the nature of sacrifice and political action.
Halla's desire to become a mother is both intriguing and problematic. There is the sense that, as a woman, Halla is expected to be a caretaker, that becoming a mother would achieve her true potential—obviously a limiting and patriarchal viewpoint (especially considering the movie was directed and written exclusively by men). This might have been avoided had the character of Halla been more fully developed: why does she want to become a mother? What was her own relationship with her mother like? The movie suggests she used to be in a relationship, so what happened to dissolve that and were there any attempts to have a child at that time? The movie doesn't pose or answer any of these questions, and while that might be a lot to expect from an already overstuffed film, it does make Halla's desire to become a mother come off as simplistic and offensively self-evident, as though it's what any woman would want.
At the same time, the last twenty minutes of the film—during which Halla does travel to Ukraine to meet Nika, the young girl she will soon adopt—provide a moving semblance of hope in the face of unavoidable catastrophe. The tidal wave of capitalism and climate change may be insurmountable, but all one can do is commit to aiding the oppressed and disenfranchised, as Halla does. It's naive, of course, to believe that the world's problems will be solved if wealthy Europeans adopt orphaned kids from wartorn Asian and African countries, and the movie avoids presenting that conclusion. It simply depicts, with palpable sympathy, one woman's belief that guiding a young life through the world may be an act as revolutionary as decimating a power grid.
It would be nice to claim that Woman at War discusses all of these issues—climate change, political activism, hope and despair, capitalism, spirituality—with the complexity they deserve. (Unexpectedly, the movie shares a lot of thematic interests with last year's First Reformed, a vastly richer and more fascinating movie than this one.) But Woman at War can only brush over these topics with broad strokes. In one scene, Halla, after distributing her manifesto, walks down a sidewalk and hears a number of news reports through open windows presenting differing opinions about the Mountain Woman's actions—an unfortunately lazy way to portray the vastly different ways that militant insurgency can be understood and spun by the media. Another scene in a gym locker room offers a two-minute conversation in which several characters discuss the expediency of extremism, and while this dialogue is well-written and performed, it's cut off way too short, as though the audience couldn't be bothered to follow a complex conversation at length. It's admirable that Woman at War brings up such difficult and urgent subjects with humor and style, but it doesn't attempt to dissect them with much depth or insight.
The lack of trust in the audience to really question these themes is echoed in the movie's most grating stylistic gimmick: the soundtrack is performed by musicians that appear onscreen, three Icelandic and three Ukrainian musicians that blatantly posit the cultural specificity of the musical motifs. Sometimes these musicians appear in the background, forming quirky compositions; sometimes they play a major role in the action, forcing Halla to turn on her television, for example, to witness the fallout of her actions. In moderation this might have been a clever idea, but in practice the prevalence of these musicians comes off as a desperate and mannered. A more assured director would have trusted his or her audience to pick up on the musical cues and understand that they relate to the protagonist's state of mind. But Woman at War's director, Benedikt Erlingsson, feels the need to hammer home this point with vulgar obviousness.
Woman at War is often vague, sometimes preposterous, not especially complex when it comes to its political themes, and occasionally didactic. But none of that changes what the movie is at its core: a funny, stylish, entertaining attempt to grapple with the urgency of climate change and the need for human action. (I haven't even mentioned a darkly funny subplot in which a Latin American traveler wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt is repeatedly arrested for Halla's crimes—a bitterly humorous way to suggest the xenophobia on the rise in European countries, and of course in the United States.) The lovely Icelandic scenery, beautifully photographed by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, provides a welcome stylistic luxury. More importantly (especially for a movie in which the characters and backstory are frequently underdeveloped), Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is riveting in dual roles. She's committed to these characters even when they remain enigmas, and her dedication to the outlandish story proves ingratiating. As the title suggests, the greatest pleasure Woman at War provides is the (unfortunately still rare) thrill of seeing a strong, independent, committed woman try to take down hegemonic systems singlehandedly. That's easily as empowering as anything featuring Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman.
Premiere: May 12, 2018 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Release: March 8, 2019
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
Producers: Benedikt Erlingsson, Carine Leblanc, Marianne Slot
Writers: Ólafur Egilsson, Benedikt Erlingsson
Music: Davíð Þór Jónsson
Cinematography: Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson
Editor: David Alexander Corno
Cast: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada, Jörundur Ragnarsson