Film Double Bill: Woman at War/Amazing Grace

Totally recommended: today I watched two films, “Woman at War” and “Amazing Grace” pretty much back-to-back.  They were both terrific.  The combined result (followed by a delicious tea) has left me in a slightly euphoric state.  Or “How I learned to love spending full money on Cinema Tickets (because it’s worth it)”.

Friends, as of today, this is the way forward for my film viewing:  to follow my heart, carefully look for films I truly want to see – paying full price for tickets and travelling to see them in a cinema.  For a while now, I have had access to a cheap TV streaming service, and relied on that to look through its films, finding the odd occasional one which was enjoyable – but more often finding “documentaries” made poorly in the 1980s, silly “leave your brain at home” juvenilities or any amount of violent horror or action thrillers with young women as weak victims or plastic surgery ‘enhanced’ eye candy.

“Woman at War” (12A)

In total contrast, the lead woman in the Icelandic film “Woman at War” is positive, energetic, resourceful, in her 40s and engages you from the first second she is on screen, with a bow and arrow, shorting out the powerlines to the local smelting plant.  Halla is an environmentalist.  As she strides away, across the springy, uneven land, a rhythm and music which fits perfectly are played – indeed, as the camera follows her across the landscape, we see the musical trio playing the music, live, in the countryside also.  Musicians and singers recur in the background throughout the film, which is a merry jest and another common link through the story line.

“Is there anything rarer than an intelligent feel-good film that knows how to tackle urgent global issues with humor?  Look no further.”  – Variety

Visual style:

The glorious huge vistas of Icelandic, wild, open countryside remind me of the Scottish Highlands – and our heroine is firmly rooted in the landscape – she loves it, and throughout the film, the elements of water, air and earth are her co-stars.  The environmental concerns motivating Halla are so beautifully engrained in the visual style, that they are not clunkily added on: environmental disasters show on the TV in the background, her environmental manifesto is released in a visually stunning way and we only discover its content dramatically as panicked politicians debate how they can control her message; you see the heroine on a glacier and wading through floodwater as the result of persistent rain (caused by global warming?).


And if this makes the film start to sound “worthy” and preachy – it certainly is not.  I recommend watching this film to anyone who enjoys a good story, a main character with depth and a good-humoured, thoughtful approach to life.  Halla’s sister in the story plays a major role: I thought they were alike, but it was only at the end credits that I realised they were both played by the same actress – which left me wondering how one scene in particular was filmed – where they are side by side in a swimming pool, with all its reflections, having a conversation.  As such, the acting in the film is a tour de force by the actress Halldora Geirhardsdottir who must additionally have been/become physically fit to play the strenuous role.

There is genuine action, tension and thrills at one point as she is chased across the landscape by an army unit.  It left me thinking how wimpy James Bond seems by comparison – in the same situation, he would require an entire support team, and millions of pounds of high-tech gadgetry to cope.

European vs American Film styles

This was my first Icelandic film – and it was a revelation because it made me suddenly realise how “Americanised” are the films we normally see on TV and in cinema in the UK.  In an American version of this film, the main character would have been played by Angelina Jolie, in a body-tight suit, with a gun (leaving many corpses in her wake), fast car and a male secret agent in tow, for a ‘love’ interest.  She would have been torn between her yearning for the secret agent and her noble mission to rescue the next generation from environmental chaos (all without actually engaging with the landscape) – blah, blah.  I don’t need to tell you anymore because you can imagine it, from the many repetitions of such storylines in films.  The music in an American remake (which I hope is never made) would be rehashes of well-known pop music hits – whereas in this film, they are local folk songs – haunting, strong and flavoursome.

In contrast: in this film, the heroine is almost completely acting alone, on her own initiative, physically harming no one yet in perilous situations which cause genuine tension and drama.


Amazing Grace (U)

“Amazing Grace” shows Aretha Franklin recording her 1972 gospel record in a genuine church, with a congregation/audience.  Pianist Rev. James Cleveland MCs and plays piano alongside and the Southern California Community choir are there too – but outstanding for me were Aretha herself – nervous and shy between takes, transformed when singing and the conductor of the choir, Alexander  Hamilton who was half-conducting, half-dancing, expressing the music with his upper body yet using hand and facial gestures to coax the best out of the choir.

“At the core of it all stood a singer aloof from the crowd but connected, fundamentally, to the eternal.”  – Jim Farber, The Guardian

Visual Style

The film recording in “Amazing Grace” appears only roughly focussed and slightly grainy – i.e. probably film stock which would record in lowlight without having to fill the space with hot lights.  There are multiple cameras on the go, and microphones everywhere.  We see the film producer Sidney Pollack confabbing with musicians.  Ultimately, piecing together the film and releasing it would run into technical difficulties – there was no visual cue to sync the visual film with the recorded sound (!) and only after Aretha’s recent death was there clear permission (from her neice) to release the film.  The fact that “Spike Lee” appears in the credits suggests a recent new spurt of input from a younger generation of film-makers.

Although the film is not the pin-sharp footage we’re used to seeing with today’s film technology – it is very of its time and gives the ‘real’ feeling of film shot on the fly, as it happened, naturalistically.  Occasionally this is irritating, as at one point when the camera on the singer makes it seem that the pulpit is listing sideways.  But, more importantly, the sound is excellent and compelling.


The powerful and also the quieter passages of voice and music are beautifully recorded and mixed – once again, the legendary record producer Arif Mardin is at work.  (He produced all her Atlanta record LPs – and there is a terrific documentary on his work “The Greatest Ears in Town – currently free to view on Amazon Prime.)

What’s in the room

The footage and excellent sound give you the sense of being ‘in the room’.  The Civil Rights movement is not directly stated, but Pastor Cleveland says how he was moved in rehearsal when Aretha sang the line “through many dangers….” in “Amazing Grace”.  And that is the feel of the film.  You can see various faces in the choir releasing the stresses and horrors of the recent past and history, but many coming through to a sense of joy and hope, through faith in God.

The best moment for me in the film was quite early on, when we see a young woman, one of the microphone holders in the crowd, suddenly experiencing an overwhelming sense of joy and responding to the music and spirituality – you can see it in her face and body language.

Aretha is singing not just as a vocal performance (although this is excellent) but she is singing out the hope, faith and joy of her people group, American blacks, at a specific time and place.  In the background, you can hear voices saying “sing, Aretha” “sing!” and realise this is a singer voicing what the room and generation are feeling.  The call and response of pentecostal church makes this clearer.

In the crowd are short clips of a bemused Mick Jagger, attempting to disco dance (which looks inappropriate and clumsy) and a fuzzy passing shot of a pale anglo-saxon face which looked a bit like John Lennon – but, frankly, in the 1970s many hirsute men looked quite similar, as there was so little of their facial features showing due to long hair, beards and glasses.

Watching the film

At the end of the film screening, someone in the cinema audience spontaneously began to clap and everyone joined in.  This is such a rare occurrence – but we had had an experience of being in that time and space with Aretha and the choir, caught up in the transcendance of spiritual worship.  To anyone of faith who believes that there is a Heaven where we go after this earthly life, the thought that Aretha would be there, with choirs of angels, is a very cheering thought.



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