The County – Review

Directed & Written by Grímur Hákonarson

Iceland/2019/91mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s no question about the economic abuse farmers, particularly dairy, suffer from monopolistic business practises and superstores with market control. Already a colossal issue in the economies of the United States and western Europe, for smaller nations with significantly lower populations the starving tactics employed against these farmers takes a heavy toll. Even in the sparse communities of Iceland, The County demonstrates how the relationship dynamic of agriculture and politics is a fascinating narrative of comedy, drama and pain. 

Dairy farming can be a lonely business but often a family-centric one. For Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) and Reynir, their farm was everything from income to culture. Raising the cattle for milk, feeding, harvesting, and trading with the Co-op group of supermarkets was no easy task, made all the more difficult following Reynir’s death. As Inga comes to terms with farming alone and a life without her husband, the greed of the supermarket’s dominance and the reliance the farms have on it becomes evident. The sinister truth of how they kept farmers in check becomes Inga’s new driving force.

Boldly, the film has absolute silence as a running reinforcement of the isolation Inga is undergoing. Despite having family and friends, the long dark evenings and loss of Reynir have impacted Inga in an exceptionally intense manner which isn’t demonstrated until Egilsdóttir‘s sole moment of melodramatic outburst. A powerful scene that brushes off overwrought tears and wails for an icy delivery with significantly harsher impact.

Overtly anti-glamourous, praise is to be rained upon Mart Taniel, who controls the cinematography in a way that paradoxically maintains the earthen realism but captures the breathtaking openness and nature of everyday Iceland. The camerawork isn’t seeking out allurement and awe, but naturally lands this way – particularly in the film’s closing shot, a similar but distinctly different horizon as the humble victorious rides away into the sunset.

Occasionally, if not almost universally, politics is bloody boring. Away from the blabbering buffoonery of mediacentric debates and debacles, the most significant and costly arrangements happen with clasped hands, quiet rooms, and red tape. Hákonarson fails to convey the reverse of the coin, however. His depiction of the humdrum and effects on Ingrid and the farmers is clear and concise, but the motivations and framing of the business owner become almost cartoonish in aspects. Darkened rooms with glinting glasses and delivery full of mirth and bitterness from Þorsteinn Bachmann makes his Bjössi a compelling antagonist, but one slightly removed from the film.

But there’s a decision to refute the melodramatic anguish and anger one would expect, where any justified fury is communicated in actions and statements rather than brandishing teeth and snarls. It will, without question, disappoint audiences looking for their Hollywood moment of pathos. Subdued and controlled, Ingrid is the heart of The County, and an exceptionally captivating performance from Egilsdóttir grasps attention even in the quietest and lengthiest of scenes. The decisions to play down the emotional turmoil of grief and trauma will turn some away, but it is authentic, understandable, and played to near perfection. Equally, the comedic nature of the film is subjective – as one would expect. The Icelandic comedy is strikingly dry and subversive, wrapping the humour in distinctly unspectacular moments or deadpan delivery. Off-putting for the general audience’s expecting bellyaches, the political lampooning and subdued performances make for understated humour deserving praise.

Bleak yet captivating, The County retains an understated style which captivates with a certain sense of appreciation of the mundane. Egilsdóttir leads a blend of delicate writing and immensely dry humour, resulting in a fascinating social film on the balance of farming communities and business politics, but for some, this untapped reservoir of emotion may become too much of a build-up without release.

Available On-demand now

Review published for The Wee Review

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