In the pre-show for the Academy Awards this week, there was a charming performance of “Husavik,” the nominated song from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Molly Sandén performed the song from Húsavík, the small coastal town where the film takes place, and local children served as the back-up choir. With a refrain of “My home town,” it commits Iceland to the virtues of provincial life—but that can only extend up to a point. The Icelandic film The County is the nightmare version of “Husavik,” depicting a place where provincialism and community values interfere with individual liberty. Director Grímur Hákonarson frames the David vs. Goliath story almost like a thriller, with intriguing allegorical implications about the perils of overreaching government in modern Europe.
The first scene wastes no time in plunging us into the mundanity of dairy farming. When we first meet Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), she assists in the birth of a calf. Hákonarson films with little curiosity or thought about the miracle of life because, for Inga, this is one of many routines she follows. She lives on the farm with her husband Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson), and they struggle because they belong to a draconian co-op. They can only sell their milk to the co-op—they are forbidden from taking their business elsewhere—and they can only buy supplies from sellers with co-op affiliations. Inga is unhappy with this arrangement, although matters get worse when Reynir dies in a car accident. Her grief is palpable, and while rebelling against the unfair co-op serves as a distraction, Inga believes in her cause. By the time she writes a Facebook post comparing them to the mafia, the subsequent threats and harassment show the comparison is justified.
The County strikes an interesting balance with high stakes and mild consequences. There is no violence in this film, for example, but the co-op’s silent influence over the community is suffocating and tense. Hákonarson amplifies that feeling with his choice in music. Most of the film has a cinema vérité look to it, particularly when Inga works at the farm, but when she lashes out, the music has the propulsive energy you might find in a John Wick movie. This is also where The County expands its scope: Most of the film is from Inga’s point of view, and while it begins as a character study of a middle-aged woman, it expands into a portrayal of a place caught between isolationism and modernity. Inga’s rebellion creates a fissure where she lives. Drunk idiots harass her because they’re automatons who only understand the status quo, while other dairy farmers like Friðgeir (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson) see there is merit to what she says. All this culminates in a town hall meeting where the community’s soul is at stake.
Iceland’s barren landscape can be beautiful, and Hákonarson shrewdly uses nature as a metaphor for what the characters undergo. Austere landscapes reflect Inga’s isolation and grief, while the gradual thaw represents how she learns to cope as a widower. Since the landscape has few trees—there is no forest anywhere—there is a sense of why the co-op has so much influence. It can feel lonely on these farms, looking miles into the distance, and the barren landscapes heighten how the people need something in order to feel linked.
Aside from the exteriors, the film’s formal qualities are a right fit for the material. The camera is mostly static and the shots last longer than we expect, although Hákonarson never lingers too long. When Inga must identify her husband’s body in the morgue, he opts for a medium shot so we see her initial shock and struggle to maintain her composure. This is not out of respect for the characters, exactly, but more that The County need not dwell over the queasier details of what happens. Hákonarson gives the viewer enough time to reflect over what they see, and nothing more.
The County is not a “message movie,” even if its characters have a specific viewpoint. At one point, Inga uses the phrase “shuffling the deck” to describe what needs to happen to the higher-ups at the co-op. Recent European history suggests she is not far off the mark: The film suggests institutions can only last so long before they are bogged down by bureaucracy and corruption. The head of the co-op uses the 2008 financial crisis to argue why it remains necessary, while Inga sees the bigger picture (it’s not just the co-op vs. Reykjavík, but the co-op vs. the world). It is a minor miracle that Hákonarson and his actors never strive for effect, and keep the material rooted in a recognizable human story. Like Frank Capra at his best, this film uses human drama to underscore our shared values.
The County is available in virtual cinemas on April 30.