The County has come out on the heels of Grímur Hákonarson’s extraordinary success with Rams (2015). That film caused a sensation back in 2015 and it launched him as a talent whose future works would be greeted with great anticipation by audiences around the world. He faces such high expectations and that could make it difficult for The County, an understated, wholesome sort of film, to really leave an impact.
He seems to have a fascination with stoic, emotionally unexpressive people who are slowly pushed to their breaking point. This time he centres in on Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), the frustrated wife of Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson), an ordinary farmer. They are entirely reliant on a local co-operative when it comes to selling their dairy products and, as part of an agreement with the co-operative, they also have to buy all of their supplies at inflated prices. This is an arrangement that has left them with a great deal of debt and Inga resents the fact that the co-operative is essentially able to run the town they live in. Everybody is aware of the fact that they employ corrupt practices but they are also afraid of questioning the authority of this all-powerful institution. Inga finds herself fighting back against them, after experiencing a personal tragedy.
There are times when this almost feels like the Norma Rae (1979) of its era. One one hand, it is the tale of a plucky, down on her luck woman who tries to get her fellow farmers to fight back against mistreatment and look to escape from a system that keeps them down. On the other hand, it has a very grim tone and it doesn’t suggest that a winning personality and a few gutsy gestures could cause fearful, cautious people to turn against a system that they are thoroughly entrenched in. Hákonarson’s script smartly subverts our expectations when it comes to the tropes of this genre. This is a film that is light on dialogue and Hákonarson frequently communicates his points through long, drawn out scenes in which we watch Inga silently, sullenly go through her daily routine. When she does have a proper conversation with somebody, or delivers a fiery speech, it has real impact. We know that it takes a lot for such a reserved woman to act out in this manner. It also makes her seem like a real, flesh and blood human being with many of the nerves and anxieties that plague the average person as they prepare to give a speech or take a stand on a controversial issue. He sketches this situation and this woman in a refreshingly realistic manner and it meant that his message is effectively driven home when he turns to making his points.
You also can’t escape the fact that Mart Taniel’s cinematography manages the difficult task of not sentimentalising rural life. Commonly we look for obvious beauty in the imagery we see on screen. Taniel doesn’t feel the need to turn this harsh, chilly environment into a Malickian wonderland. He takes a straightforward approach to presenting us with the snowcapped hills, muddy pastures and naked trees. This is not a hellhole and people inhabit nicely appointed homes in which there is always a warm, golden light illuminating everything. He also avoids building up farm work as something noble. Inga and the other day workers either look faintly bored or mildly contented when they inspect machinery or feed the livestock. It’s wonderful to simply observe all of this routine, without being told how we have to feel about it. It does become easy to feel like you are truly immersed in this environment and see how these people have become so hardened and stoic. This might be the rare film about farming that doesn’t pay lip service to its subject through a few quick, breezy montages. Hákonarson sees it as an essential facet of these characters lives, and wants us to see how it has shaped them.
There is so much about this film that does work, but there are a few changes that could have been made here and there. The slow pacing occasionally leaves one feeling impatient and restless. There are cases in which it does pay dividends and lets us wallow in the emotions that the characters feel for a little longer. When Reynir and Inga have a tense argument, it makes sense to slowly let them air their grievances, rather than having them quickly launch into an all out war of words. One questions whether it was quite as necessary to rest on a shot of cows being milked by a suction apparatus for an entire minute. The flow of some of the most suspenseful, engrossing sections of the film are interrupted by moments where all of the air seems to be sucked out of the room. More consistency would ensure that there aren’t moments at which you could feel compelled to softly yawn.
There is also the lingering feeling that Hákonarson doesn’t do enough with the relationship between Inga and her husband’s friend Friðgeir (Sveinn Olafur Gunnarsson). The two actors are very convincing as good friends who only have minor disagreements over how to handle this situation. You find yourself wanting the film to explore this bond more deeply and consider his perspective more seriously. He doesn’t play quite as big of a role as he could have and the film’s message might have been stronger if the focus of this story had expanded to include a few more characters. It didn’t have to be quite so rigidly fixed on Inga.
Despite having a few inconsistencies, this is still an uncommonly thoughtful film about subjects that have already been covered in multiple films. I doubt that it will achieve the popularity of Rams (which was recently remade into an Australian film starring Sam Neill), but it does prove that Hákonarson has quite a few tricks up his sleeve. The County shows that he has the ability to turn out a very different type of film and we should all be thankful for his ability to continually surprise us.
THE COUNTY opens in theatres and virtual cinemas nationwide in the U.S. on April 30th, 2021