A Cause Worth Fighting For: Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War

Jennifer Prediger attends a Jodie Foster-hosted screening of the new Icelandic film, and comes away a passionate advocate.

Recently, I attended a screening at the London Hotel in Los Angeles of Iceland’s latest contribution to world cinema, Woman at War, where the film’s director, Benedikt Erlingsson, and its star, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, were in attendance.

Before the screening, I heard a rumor that Jodie Foster – who was hosting the screening – was in line to direct the American version of the film. When Foster introduced Woman at War, though, she said the only reason she was hosting the screening was because she loved the movie. And with good reason. This action/drama/thriller is a rousing new take on the David and Goliath story where one small but mighty woman fights against the behemoth Greenhouse Gas Industrial Complex with just a bow and arrow and a brave heart.

The main character, Halla, is a woman at the height of her power in her late 40s/early 50s – the kind of heroine the world is secretly hungry for. She knows herself and what’s at stake, and will do anything in her power to stop an Icelandic energy company with multinational ties from heating up the planet. Halla wants her country to have no part in globalized crime against humanity.

The disturbing near-future reality the film brings to light involves the surprising effect of melting polar ice caps, which destabilizes our planet’s biosphere, causing torrential rain, floods, unusual and unpredictable weather patterns – massive hurricanes, violent tornadoes, landslides, fires, etc. Sound familiar? If you turn on the news, you’ll see these events unfolding already. Man-made global warming is happening and we’re collectively not doing what we need to slow it down. Halla knows this and is willing to do whatever she can to protect our one and only Earth.

Halla is played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, a highly regarded theater and television actress in Reykjavik. She’s like an Icelandic Julianne Moore, except grittier and even more down to earth. In Woman at War, Geirharðsdóttir plays not only choir director and guerilla environmentalist Halla but also her twin sister, Ása, a yoga teacher who’s planning to move to an ashram in India.

While fighting for Mother Earth, Halla is confronted with a long-awaited opportunity to become a mother and adopt a little girl. She faces a Sophie’s choice: save a child who has no one in the entire world, or continue trying to save the world itself. Which will she choose, nurture or nature?

“What is clear to me by being around the film is the fact that nature is like a child, someone that an adult has to protect and stand up for,” Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir wrote to me via email, while preparing for a new theater production in Reykjavik. “So the character’s need to protect nature and then choosing to nurture the little girl comes from the same place within. It is every adult’s duty to protect the ones that are vulnerable.”

Woman at War deals with all of this heavy stuff and still it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The pointed humor is reminiscent of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, with a touch of Jacques Tati, but more intimate and full of emotion.

Among the bits that get laughs are a dog named “Woman” and a Latinx tourist who gets arrested repeatedly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Icelandic folk musicians break the fourth wall in the middle of scenes, like Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers in There’s Something About Mary. At first, the gag is funny, but the music is so penetrating, it becomes an unexpectedly powerful, emotional aspect of the film.

If you’ve ever been curious about traveling to Iceland, see this movie while it’s still in theaters so you can get the big-screen perspective. “The landscapes were a character,” I overheard someone say during the portion of the evening when free wine and veal meatballs (a questionable choice I’m sure Jodie Foster had nothing to do with) were being served.

Woman at War premiered last May at the Cannes Film Festival, and was chosen as Iceland’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. And, as it turns out, Jodie Foster is indeed set to direct and star in the American version.

Hollywood remakes are risky, but Foster seems about as safe a pair of hands as any. One of my favorite movies to watch every year around Thanksgiving is Home for the Holidays, with Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft and Dylan McDermott, which Foster brilliantly directed. It’s one of the great movies about family. Light and dark in equal measure, it captures the hilarious inadequacy of beloved relatives. Foster’s ability to strike this balance with humor and pathos will be put to good use in her own take on Woman at War.

Whatever Jodie Foster does with her version of Woman at War, the takeaway will likely be the same as the Icelandic original: Do whatever you can to help. The world needs it.

The New York Times called Jennifer Prediger a “busy indie actress”. She is also a busy writer, director and producer living in Los Angeles. She made her directorial debut in 2014 with collaborator Jess Weixler with their movie Apartment Troubles, starring Weixler, Prediger, Megan Mullally, Will Forte and Jeffrey Tambor. She has appeared in such movies as Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher, Bob Byington’s Infinity Baby, Madeleine Olnek’s The Foxy Merkins, Onur Tukel’s Applesauce and Richard’s Wedding, Alex Karpovsky’s Red Flag, and the Gotham Award-winning web series The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes. Find out more at luckyprediger.com.