Starring: Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir, Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann
Director: Grímur Hákonarson
Running Time: 92 mins
The County (Héraðið) is an Icelandic film about a woman who, after the untimely death of her husband, decides to stand up to the corrupt organisation that controls her small farming community.
A captivating drama that becomes more exciting and thought-provoking as it goes on, The County isn’t necessarily the most easy-going watch, but it is still a gripping one throughout. Complete with a typically Scandinavian atmosphere of understated emotion, this film isn’t the hyperbolic drama it could have been in different hands, instead telling its story as quietly, yet honestly, as possible.
Director Grímur Hákonarson received strong acclaim around the world for his 2015 film, Rams, which also looks at life in Iceland’s farming community. That film, though insightful and certainly atmospheric, wasn’t a masterpiece of storytelling in my opinion, and often felt more drab than genuinely understated.
The County, however, is a step in the right direction. Certainly, the film is deliberately filled with rough edges. It moves at a slow pace, its setting is rugged, and it often gets very detailed with the nitty-gritty of the politics of farming – something that few other films are willing to do.
And yet, this is never a boring watch. It’s not a heart-stopping one either, but The County is meant to be an understated and affecting drama, and it achieves that for the most part.
Above all, the film’s political edge is its most interesting line of focus. Though not entirely present in the early stages of the film, which looks more at grief and vulnerability, The County really steps up a gear in its middle act, taking aim at abusive and controlling organisations that pretend to be benevolent members of the community.
As I said, the nitty-gritty of how Icelandic farming cooperatives work may not be something you’d immediately think of as fascinating, but The County imbues that with real emotional depth, pitching the conflict between a frustrated farmer and an increasingly arrogant and uncontrollable organisation against the backdrop of personal loss.
In that, the film’s overall arc comes together nicely, with a captivating blend of emotional and political drama. However, The County is just missing a small spark of life to really make it hit home.
Hákonarson’s understated style shouldn’t be criticised, after all it’s what makes some of this film’s most intimate and thought-provoking moments so powerful. However, this story, which to a degree looks at pent-up frustration, doesn’t quite deliver that emotion as effectively as could be the case.
There’s a part of me that wants this film to be a little like Wild Tales – a story of a normal person eventually having enough with the world and losing their cool. However, this is Iceland, not Argentina, and they deal with their frustration in a different way.
So, The County doesn’t go to the hyperbolic lengths of Wild Tales, but in retaining such an understated style, it misses the opportunity to really get you on side with its main character, and sympathise with her enormous frustration and anger.
Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir gives an excellent performance throughout, it’s just that the screenplay doesn’t lend enough attention to her feelings of anger, instead putting more focus on the political connotations of the story. That’s interesting in its own way, but I feel that a stronger display of anger in the screenplay could have been the difference between The County being a good film and a great film.
Still, The County is undeniably a good film. Better than Rams with its blend of emotional and political drama, as well as a hint of exciting drama on the verge of exploding, it’s a captivating watch throughout, albeit missing that extra spark of frustration and anger that could have made it even better. That’s why I’m giving it a 7.5 overall.