Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson’s previous film Rams was such a strong and emotionally-charged work that it made my list of the top 50 films of the 2010s. One could understand then the pressure to make good of his follow-up, in this case The County, a seemingly against-all-odds account of the little people taking on the big guys, which may smell of familiarity but works on its own as a slice of sound Icelandic cinema.
Played with steel determination by Arndis Honn Egilsdottor, Inga is a dairy farmer in a northern Iceland village who with her husband Reynir ploughs all energy into keeping their farm going in spite of the heavy debts they have accumulated. Life is not made easier by the actions of the local co-operative who control the local economy with an iron fist, making life economically impossible for those who dare try and dodge their rates.
In one instance, a farmer fed up of having to pay for the overpriced supplies goes elsewhere for his goods but is blacklisted by the co-op, whose shop is key to the community but who take advantage by charging extortionate rates for the supplies the farmers require.
The film is also a sound depiction of storytelling even if it comes in second place in terms of entertainment value and dark humour that Rams delivered with more flair. Whereas that film finished on a feeling of unease and heartbreak, this one ends more optimistic by comparison, though that is by no means a failure on the film’s part and if anything a slight relief.
The director plays the film with a feeling of a typical Ken Loach film, depicting the crusade of a lone individual driven to near-ruin who decides to stand up and fight, taking on an establishment with no guarantee of which way it will end. It is also a presentation of how a community can be virtually held hostage by a ruthless industry who are willing to go to whatever lengths they can to sustain an operation in the face of potential opposition with the capital Reykjavik which is touched upon several times.
By having a modern-day woman in the central part of someone battling the establishment, the comparisons with Frances McDomand’s character from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri appear inevitable. But there is a reasonable depth in Egilsdootor whose capable performance moves from exhaustion and confusion to devastation, frustration and determination in the nick of time.
The film balances real drama such as Inga’s admitting to the her grown-up children about their father’s death with occasional moments of humour. Driven by the persistent visits of the co-operative’s henchman whose veiled threats are clear as day, the smiles come when a defiant Inga drives her milk truck to the co-op, soaking the building with its contents.
There is a suspenseful element to this, particularly during the climactic town hall sequence and what could come next either way, making for an unpredictability that helps this story with a familiar narrative succeed.
It may not be on the same level as Rams but there is a socio-economic story at heart that makes this another success story for its director whose presence is a welcome piece in Scandinavian cinema of today.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: ***