The County (Héraðið)

Iceland (2019) Dir. Grímur Hákonarson

Local communities are very important for many people. We have to live in the same area so it makes sense there is some semblance of a cohesive, communal attitude. A nice idea but not without its flaws when this self-reliance creates a controlling monopoly, and it is the little people who suffer.

A community of farmers belong to a co-operative formed in the late 19th century to protect their interests against major corporations. Whilst the farms were hit by the financial crisis, the co-op helped them stay afloat, but over the years their prices have risen so much some have turned to suppliers in Reykjavik but soon found themselves blacklisted by the co-op.

One loyal farmer Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) finally decides he wants out and visits co-op head Eyjólfur (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) to tell him this. That night Reynir is killed in a car accident leaving his wife Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) to run the farm alone. At first, the co-op supports her, but when Inga learns Reynir was forced to grass on members who did business outside of the co-op, she decides to expose their actions.

Grímur Hákonarson won critical acclaim for his previous film, Rams, which explores farming life – The County returns to this theme but approaches it from a different angle, showing what happens when the progressive exploit the hidebound for their own gain. And for full clarity, this is not a comedy as some media might have labelled it.

Coming from Iceland, with its bleak yet oddly picturesque vistas of snow-tipped country hills and mountain roads, you can’t even call this a black comedy, unless one is able to find humour in corporate bullying under the guise of communism. Aside from one scene in which Inga exacts her revenge against the co-op in a very public and milky fashion, there is little to joke about here.

Hákonarson presents his farmers as hardworking, noble, and up front people and whilst not complete luddites towards modernity (they have smartphones, computers, and hi-tech milking equipment), they are heavily driven by the traditions of this occupation and lifestyle. Aran jumpers notwithstanding, there is a sense of this being typical of the old school doctrine of keeping your head down and don’t rock the boat.

This allowed the co-op to get away with becoming the very thing it was opposing when it was formed, and with nobody saying anything publicly for fear of reprisal, they seem to accept this monopoly as long as the co-op still protected them. Before Reynir’s death, which was under mysterious circumstances, Inga complains to him that they should seek alternative suppliers to save money, but Reynir was too loyal to – and secretly controlled by – the co-op to abandon them.

With Inga now running the farm, she can make her own decisions but first she needs to experience firsthand the slyness of the co-op’s pernicious puppetry. When she asks to have her shopping put on the farm account, it had been closed down; Eyjólfur explains this was because it was in Reynir’s name and had it reopened in Inga’s name. A simple clerical error or covert psychological warfare to ensure Inga would play ball?

Upon learning of Reynir’s imposed betrayal towards his fellow farmers, Inga takes to Facebook to accuse the co-op of corrupt practices whilst still a member, which takes some balls, but is dismissed by Eyjólfur as Inga still grieving. Shortly after, Inga decides to change fertiliser supplier, saving her a whopping 300,000 crown, and gets a stern warning from the co-op she’ll be shut down if she persists in playing up.

It’s a David vs. Goliath story set in the world of business and industry that has been told many times before, yet the subtle differences in this version make it feel original and just as compelling. Obviously David being a woman might not seem so progressive in this day and age yet a look at the other farmers and they are all male, and the fact it takes Inga for the other farmers to grow a set and decide to take the co-op on underlines this quite emphatically.

Dogged female protagonists are becoming more frequent in cinema, but what sets Inga apart is that she isn’t a hysterical woman reacting to some petty inconvenience or being oppressed for her gender but a morally assured woman appalled at her husband’s loyalty being abused by bullies. She is fighting not for personal gain but for communal gain and to atone for what Reynir did, although this was not common knowledge per the turnout at his funeral.

Restricted to an 88-minute runtime, the story moves at quite a pace but does allow for a few moments of sombre stillness to relate the gravity of the situation for Inga. Our emotional attachment to the cause is also slightly compromised as Inga is easy to root for through her resolve and determination but her aloof mien hides any warmth in her personality.

Fortunately, Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir is quietly captivating as Inga, an unconventional protagonist but a relatable one; there is no pretence about her other than a rebirth of sorts as her campaign continues. That the script refuses to adopt any kind of feminist stance to it shows the plight at the heart of the story is universal and inclusive – rather fitting given its community based foundation.

Eschewing a musical score until the very end, silence plays a large part in building on the chilly, desolate atmosphere already announced by the sparse Icelandic countryside. The odd panoramic tableau illustrates Inga’s loneliness whilst internal scenes feel formal and austere. Hákonarson’s unfussy directing suits the simplistic rural setting and lets he cast and the story breathe, avoiding histrionics and melodrama.

Were this a Hollywood film, The County would be schmaltzy, laden with gags involving cow pats, and have a feel good ending. Thankfully it isn’t and instead we have a topical and potent social drama to ponder and appreciate.

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