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Film Review: The County

31 May 20 words: Roshan Chandy

Roshan Chandy has high praise for this contemporary Icelandic western...

Director: Grímur Hakonarson
Starring: Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Þorsteinn Gunnar Bjarnason
Running time: 92 minutes

The County boasts a magnificent star turn from Icelandic stage and TV veteran Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir. It’s a film about grief and corruption, but most importantly a woman making a stand which has become something of a speciality in Iceland’s cinema of recent times. 

In the absurdly kooky Woman at War, Halldora Geirhardsdottir - armed only with a bow and arrow - went to battle with the environmental exploits of the aluminium industry. Now Rams director Grimur Hakonarson casts Egilsdottir as the grieving wife of a deceased farmer stepping up against the local co-operative that has bullied and intimidated her community for years. The product is a satirically sharp yet sincerely moving tragicomedy pitched somewhere between the nail-cracking women’s liberation of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Dark Waters’ toxic corporate politics.

This film begins where life begins with the graphic birth of a calf; tugged from its mother’s womb with a chain around its neck. It’s a scene that symbolises one of the very few still homespun skills which have become a remnant in rural Iceland where traditional trades and lifestyles are increasingly under threat. For instance, milking a cow - once a hand-made pinnacle of farm life - has succumbed to technological advancements. Robotic milking now dominates barn insides.

The action takes place in the insidiously remote and forebodingly-named village Erpsfjorour; breathtakingly photographed by cinematographer Mart Taniel with the same Mordor-esque mix of ice, fire and greenery that populated TV’s Trapped. Here Reynir (Henrik Olafsson) and his inscrutable wife Inga (Egilsdottir) lead a modest agricultural existence. A way of life he appreciates more than her. 

Inga grumbles, “when was the last time we took a vacation? It’s been three years”. Her unwavering dedication to the family farm Dalsmynni comes less out of personal passion than a deep love for Reynir who “couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Dalsmynni”. Meanwhile Inga wants to move south to be with the couple’s children.

More significantly, she’s greatly sceptical of the Co-op - the largest company in the area that owns “almost everything” and which Reynir is suspiciously devoted to. Overseen by the peevishly subdued Eyjolfur (Sigurour Sigurjonsson), farmers depend on this retail conglomerate to buy all their products. The Co-op alternatively expects locals to buy its supplies in exchange for such a kind gesture. Should they not do so and shop with other companies, it threatens, for example, ending purchase of their milk and taking away the farms of people with heavy debts because, after all, “nothing happens without the blessing of the Co-op”.

The County flirts with a fully-loaded cartel of genres

When Reynir dies unexpectedly in a car crash, Inga is left “drowning in debt” while beset with feelings of abandonment and betrayal. All indications pointing towards her husband’s “suicide” being caused by the Co-op, she takes to Facebook to pen an impassioned post that brands the company “a mafia”. This is a first in a zealous campaign of words, violence and poetic justice that brings her closer to the edge than ever…

Shot on perfectly constructed widescreen vistas, The County flirts with a fully-loaded cartel of genres. As an example, there’s something genuinely demonic about the itchy-stubbled Eyjolfur. His sunken eyes possess sugar daddy creeps and wouldn’t look out of place in Hammer Horror films. Channelling the parochial spirit of Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man with the chilly corporate calculations of Charles Dance, this slimy company boss should be a cartoonish caricature or - as Inga puts it - a “mafia” don. On the contrary, Sigujonsson’s performance is shiversomely unassuming complete with scary spectacles and tawdry knitwear.

Much like Sam Raimi, director Hakonarson injects red-eyed scares tongue-in-cheek with Stooges-style slapstick comedy. While Reynir’s midnight drive to an early grave shuddered me to the bone, I laughed like a parrot when Inga splattered manure over a corpulent Co-op exec’s windscreen. In the meantime, a hilarious moment in which she splodges office windows in milk plays like an adrenalised DIY riff on a Mission Impossible action sequence.

With a bechdel-beating heroine, sinewy tundras and makings of a murder mystery, it’s tempting to place The County within the landscape of Scandi-Noirs popularized in the Nordic countries by The Killing and The Bridge on Television and The Millenium Trilogy in cinemas. However it’s actually in the flavours of a “west country Western” that Hakonarson’s film really imprints its DNA.

At many points I found myself thinking of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. A Cornish western within walls that continues to gnaw its discomforting teeth into the imaginations of film-makers. There’s no gratuitous rape scene here or indeed a physical house under attack, but there is a metaphorical one. That being Inga’s farm threatened with eviction should she not buy the Co-op’s fertilizer or even the generation-standing way of life occupied by rural Icelanders at war with hungry, money-grubbing corporations.

A late scene where Inga sings along to an Icelandic folk ballad brings to mind the use of Danny Boy in the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing. And Egilsdóttir socks it home: a consistently steely resolve holding tightly to her passion for community. We could all use that in these times. 

Did you know? In 2016, Hakonarson’s previous feature, Rams, was voted the second-greatest Icelandic film of all time by online newspaper Kjarnnin. 

The County is available on Curzon Home Cinema now

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