This was the most enjoyable film I watched in Glasgow. Most of the time I was on the edge of my seat cheering. The hero of this fairy tale, as the writer-director calls it, is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). Halla is a woman in her forties, living alone and seemingly happy with her ‘crusades’ (and the name ‘Halla’ refers to one of the last Icelandic outlaw’ characters in the 17th century)’. Halla has three passions – leading a choir, taking care of the planet and protecting her local landscape. It’s these last two which motivate her declaration of war on heavy industry and the power company. Her heroes are Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. The film’s narrative begins with the one woman war already well under way. A large metal smelting plant has been built close to Halla’s town and power is brought to it by overhead lines which snake across the mountains. The Chinese are said to be interested in investing in the smelter, so protecting it is high on the government agenda. Halla has already managed to cut the power supply more than once and now she has bigger plans. Meanwhile, the company and the government have brought in security forces, the CIA and the latest surveillance technologies to stop her (though they don’t actually know who is causing the power losses yet). But Halla is very fit and resourceful and has some clever ideas. She might not be a superhero, but she is a tough adversary.
The narrative has a key twist which I won’t reveal and it has a sub-plot which goes some way to explaining the film’s co-production status. Halla applied some time ago to adopt a little girl orphaned after the fighting in Ukraine. This is a bureaucratic process that appears to be heading for a resolution just as Halla is about to launch her biggest attack. She desperately wants the child but how would her arrival affect Halla’s campaign?
The film works because of the wonderful central performance and the comic understanding of co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson whose previous film was the cult hit Of Horses and Men (Iceland 2013), which I also enjoyed (and which also featured Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). The comedy is in the way Halla evades capture and outwits the security forces, but pleasure is also generated by the careful planning procedures and exciting action scenes. I note from going back to a film still from Of Horses and Men, that Erlingsson seems to have repeated the idea of a lone Spanish traveller on a bicycle who is a kind of ‘silent witness’ to all the trouble Halla is causing (and since the authorities don’t know the identity of the saboteur, this poor Spaniard is arrested on the grounds that he is an alien). I wonder if this character played by Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is set to appear in Benedikt Erlingsson’s future films? The other big attractions in the film include the Icelandic landscape (beautifully presented in ‘Scope by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson) and the music. Halla has her own musical accompaniment physically in place with her as she tackles her mission, a wonderful touch. The euphonium is an inherently comic instrument for me. Icelandic films seem to thrive on a certain kind of dark humour. If you enjoyed Rams and Under the Tree, you should certainly enjoy this.
Woman at War was screened in Critics Week at Cannes in 2018 and it has been acquired for UK distribution by Picturehouses so it should appear later this year. Don’t miss it. The main trailer for the film gives away the twist so here is a much shorter US teaser:
The Hunter is the kind of film that will enthrall many audiences and infuriate others. It’s an intelligent and well-crafted exercise in combining elements from several different genre repertoires and presenting them via great cinematography of relatively unusual landscapes. The performances are very good and there is an engaging sense of suspense. The film’s resolution will provide many audiences with the basis for arguments in the pub, although the script in the end is the weak point as it rushes to its conclusion with several narrative threads dangling. But this shouldn’t detract from the pleasure of watching the film in the cinema (and not waiting for it on DVD).
‘The hunter’ is a professional and at first we think he is a typical Hollywood/European hitman as he receives a commission – but quickly we realise that we have the wrong genre and instead we are plunged into a Deliverance-type story, set in an isolated part of Tasmania. ‘Martin David’ (Willem Dafoe) is given the task of finding the last surviving specimen of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger in order to kill it and retrieve blood samples and organs which a typically mysterious corporation (‘Redleaf’) intends to use to develop new biotechnology products. The tiger’s last sighting was in a mountain region where a dispute about logging on the lower slopes between local loggers and a group of ‘eco warriors’ means that the hunter is less than welcome in the bar of the nearest town. However, unlike the hapless townies in John Boorman’s Deliverance, the hunter is highly capable of looking after himself and at times in the wilderness he resembles the John Rambo character in the first film of that series. However, The Hunter has another genre repertoire to explore. Martin’s cover story is that he is a university researcher and he has rented a room in a house in the forest owned by Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two small children ‘Sass’ and ‘Bike’. Lucy’s partner was a local scientist who disappeared on a trip into the wilderness. When he arrives, Martin finds Lucy crashed out on sleeping pills and he is greeted by the assertive Sass and her brother who refuses to speak but who has a remarkably expressive face. The narrative will allow plenty of time to explore the relationship between Martin and these children – and their mother when she eventually emerges.
So, self-reliant, professional hunter seeks prey but also has to deal with a grieving family and a hostile local community. On top of this, we may be in an eco ‘conspiracy thriller’ concerning Redleaf. It’s a fascinating mix and director Daniel Nettheim, cinematographer Robert Humphreys and composers Andrew Lancaster, Michael Lira and Matteo Zingales generally succeed in presenting a compelling narrative. It’s unfortunate that they never solve the central problem associated with a narrative built around two very different generic modes – the hunter in the wilderness and the family melodrama in the boarding house. It’s not that the two narrative strands aren’t connected – Martin builds a relationship with the mute boy that clearly has a relevance for his task in the wilderness. Rather it is the problem of frequent moves between the locations so that the mountain range where an extinct animal might have been spotted seems only a few miles down the road by car. The script by Alice Addison appears to have been developed from a previous adaptation of a novel by Julia Leigh, who last year saw her own film, Sleeping Beauty in competition at Cannes. I haven’t read the novel but some of the comments on The Hunter suggest that it doesn’t succeed in presenting the full complexity of the original story. I can only guess budget considerations and the possible uncommercial length of a ‘faithful adaptation’ gave rise to the compression of the film narrative in its final quarter. I can’t explain more without giving away the plot twists. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the film for what it is – an engaging twist on familiar genre narratives with great performances (Dafoe is perfectly cast) – but don’t try to second guess the plotting.