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In his deadpan 2015 feature Rams, Icelandic film-maker Grímur Hákonarson breathed bittersweet life into a tale of feuding sheep-farming brothers facing a cull that risked destroying their ancestral stock and way of life. Here, he peels back another layer of dour Nordic culture, turning his attention to a woman finding her voice amid the often chilly silence of agrarian life, making her mark in a male-dominated industry. Like its predecessor, The County blends elements of heartfelt tragedy with absurdist comedy, conjuring a humanist portrait of life in which community and loneliness coexist in a landscape of contradictions – geographical, personal, and political.
In a scene that reminded me of the arresting opening of Andrew Kötting’s This Filthy Earth, we meet Inga (stage and TV veteran Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) pulling a newborn calf from its mother’s womb in the remote farm she runs with her husband, Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson). It’s a tough life, one that Inga (who always dreamed of moving to more forgiving climes) has endured more for Reynir’s sake than her own, bound as she is to her husband’s love for the family farm. So when Reynir dies in a suspicious road accident, Inga feels not only anguish and loss but also a bizarre sense of betrayal – a bewildered belief that he has somehow abandoned her, leaving her “drowning in debt”.
Her grief, however, soon turns to anger at the powerful local co-operative to which Reynir was seemingly devoted, but which Inga now views as a corrupt monopoly, exploiting the community it was set up to protect. Indeed, whispered suggestions that Reynir’s shady involvement with the co-op may have somehow driven him to an early grave focus Inga’s growing sense of injustice. So she takes to Facebook, writing an angry blog in which she compares the co-op to a “mafia”, detailing the ways in which they exert a stranglehold over everyone’s lives and businesses (“nothing happens without their blessing”) and the dangers of crossing them. It’s the opening salvo in a war of independence that will see her throwing muck – both real and metaphorical – in the face of authority.
There’s an echo of Frances McDormand’s middle-aged antiheroine Mildred Hayes from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in the rebellious figure Inga becomes, although anyone who enjoyed Benedikt Erlingsson’s 2018 Icelandic hit Woman at War (featuring a barnstorming performance by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) may see closer ties with that film’s eco-warrior. Carrying The County shoulder high, Egilsdóttir does a terrific job of embodying Inga’s gradual change from stoically suffering farm owner to unstoppable force of nature, a change that catches everyone, friends and foe alike, by surprise. A hilarious scene in which Inga uses a manure spreader to (milk)shake up her opponents calls to mind the drollness of a Buster Keaton caper, with Inga’s face a picture of sullen defiance – silent, sad, yet utterly unyielding.
Plaudits, too, to Sigurður Sigurjónsson (unrecognisable from his role in Rams) as Eyjólfur, the quietly threatening leader of the co-operative, under whose steely reign the organisation has lost sight of its original ideals. Crucially, Sigurjónsson doesn’t play Eyjólfur as a pantomime villain or Godfather-style stereotype (despite Inga’s mafioso accusations). On the contrary, he seems wholly unassuming, sporting a disarming combination of spectacles and patterned jumpers while arguing the toss about the lofty aspirations of the co-op. For him, the organisation is simply trying to protect an endangered way of life from torpor and (worse still) tourism; for her, it’s become little more than a protection racket, in urgent need of replacement by a new union.
Pitched somewhere between a personal drama, a bone-dry black comedy and a sociopolitical thriller (“It’s time to reshuffle the deck, to retake control!”), The County is handsomely photographed by , with carefully composed (and frequently static) widescreen frames, letting the action play out like a series of elegant tableaux vivants, avoiding sudden moves or agitated edits. Composer Valgeir Sigurðsson accompanies the tonal shifts with delicacy and tact, mixing strings and synths with ambient sounds as he moves from the plaintive drones of early scenes, via eerie notes, which heighten the sense of suspense and danger, to a mournfully melodic cue (simply entitled Farmland) that builds to an almost religious epiphany. The drama may be down to earth, but that doesn’t stop the film – or indeed its protagonist – from dreaming big, and daring to look beyond the horizon.
• The County is streaming now on Curzon Home Cinema
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The County review – one woman against the herd | Drama films