The County is yet more proof that Icelandic film-makers punch above their weight. Grímur Hákonarson is one of a band of modern Icelandic writer/directors including Benedikt Erlingsson (Of Horses and Men, Woman at War) and Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík, The Deep) turning out films that manage to have something going on below the surface while also being entertaining.
If Kormákur has recently gone a bit Hollywood (2 Guns, with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, and currently finishing The Good Spy with Hugh Jackman), Hákonarson has stayed closer to home and more stereotypically “Icelandic”, like countryman Erlingsson.
You might have seen Hákonarson’s excellent last film, Rams, which told the story of two ageing sheep-farmer brothers locked in a decades-long enmity. The County retains the austere, icy backdrops of that film but shifts the storytelling focus. This is no one-against-one story but a one-against-many tale of a single woman’s fight against the local co-operative to which all the farmers in the county belong. They buy from the co-operative, they sell to the co-operative, at prices set by the co-operative, which seems increasingly out of touch with its members for a supposedly communitarian organisation.
But for Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) things snap into focus when her husband – unbeknown to her the co-op’s snitch – kills himself, having let the pressure of going against his fellow farmers get to him. The fact that he was “drowning in debt” in Inga’s words, obviously didn’t help either.
Inga, a loyal wife and tough sort – we meet her in the first scene of the film applying birthing chains to a calf’s hooves and hauling it out of the back end of its mother – blames the co-op and goes to war against it. A bunch of petty grievances have piled up, like going to the co-op supermarket to buy some groceries and finding that the family credit account has been closed because her husband is dead and she’s just “the wife”.
Royally pissed off at this, and the exorbitant price the co-op is charging for fertiliser, among other things, she posts a long diatribe on Facebook. A TV news reporter turns up to interview her. Meanwhile, Inga starts being menaced at night by big men vandalising her property, and cold-shouldered during the day by neighbours. The film takes wing.
More plot would only ruin your enjoyment of the film, which is really about what happens next, as Inga decides to meet force with force. It’s the moment when Hákonarson shifts from a Nordic miserabilism to a Hollywood follow-your-dream aesthetic and, in case your attention has drifted, Valgeir Sigurðsson’s soundtrack announces it with a sudden switch into bounding electronica delivered at volume.
As things build towards a showdown climax and Inga gathers her forces, brazen acts of individualism and declarations of independence montage together not-quite Rocky style, but close.
If this is making a little sick rise in your throat, because you came here for a wintry tale told in a bleakly austere Scandinavian style, do not fear, there is still plenty of that. Partly in Mart Taniel’s dead-flat cinematography, and partly in the casting of the two villains. Hannes Óli Ágústsson plays the heavy whose very presences is a threat to Inga, Sigurður Sigurjónsson plays the brains running the co-op with an iron fist – neither of them go full Hollywood, both stay well within the realm of a hicksville believability and the film is all the better for it.
Similarly, Hákonarson manages a finale that delivers both the Hollywood cathartic happy-ever-after triumph of the individual and yet also withholds it, a juggling trick that probably doesn’t quite come off but he’s got to get some points for trying.
And that’s his big point, I think. That collective endeavour is actually a good thing – hey, socialism – but it’s got to allow room for change, for individual endeavour, or it just becomes an oppressive regime. It would be interesting to see the same story playing out in, say, a US company town. Maybe Hákonarson should head there next…
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© Steve Morrissey 2021