Grímur Hákonarson’s sensitive drama The County is the tale of one woman’s determined fight against capitalist corruption threatening the social and economic freedom of their locality. Gorgeously shot by Mart Taniel (The Temptation of St. Tony, November), the film is bookended by wide Ceylanesque frames of the vast Icelandic mountains and plains, a visual motif that recurs throughout to complement its portrayal of life in isolation, set against harsh conditions. Anchored by a moving lead performance from Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir (as Inga), The County presents a rather balanced depiction of the dynamics between oppressor and oppressed, even if some of its narrative choices seem a bit too generic to fully do justice to the powerful social commentary it attempts to express.
Inga is a middle-aged dairy farmer who lives with her husband in a small Icelandic farming community, one where almost all administrative power is now in the hands of an organization referred to as The Co-operative. This monopolistic entity rules the agricultural and dairy production, as well as consumerism, in the county with an iron fist. All farmers must sell their produce to them as well as buy farming supplies and all kinds of daily goods from their local supermarket, leading to them controlling all the prices and exploiting the people. Anyone violating their rules, such as buying or selling externally, is met with swift opposition from the powerful cooperation by having their lands and farms taken or worse. Inga’s farm is thus knee-deep in debt, like a lot of their neighbors, despite both of them toiling day and night. Her husband is coerced by the co-op into a shady scheme which he cannot back out of, leading to a sequence of events that results in his untimely death.
This leads Inga, initially a timid-natured woman ambivalent towards the co-op, to reflect on the life they lead under the ruthless stranglehold of this authoritarian organization. She writes a scathing article on Facebook ― on what she calls the “Co-op Mafia” ― which earns her a lot of attention, not all of it very positive. Thus begins her war against the people who have long exploited her, and her friends, starting with Inga refusing to either buy from or sell to them. Initially, she naively hopes that she’d at least be assured of the support of the other farmers, who have all faced the brunt of the co-op’s corrupt methods. But she painfully discovers that most people are either too indoctrinated by the co-op’s misleading promises, and the illusion of unity, or too scared to speak up for their own rights in fear of retribution from the powerful system. Desperate to not let these greedy men get away with their schemes, Inga embarks on a long and difficult journey to win back the community’s personal and collective economic independence, risking everything she has in the process.
Hákonarson’s measured direction notably refrains from demonizing the co-op heads outright, as most films would be likely to do, rather showing them as ordinary humans who have fallen prey to lust for power and money. The so-called antagonists in The County are initially rather polite and civil towards Inga, showing kindness towards this recently-widowed woman, despite hiding ulterior motives up their sleeves. It is one of the many creative choices in the film that leads to a more realistic and compelling narrative progression, as opposed to being a dramatic showdown between the big bad evil and its helpless victim (something that is typically only found in movies and not in reality). He lets us sympathize with Inga not by ostracizing her from the community but rather by laying bare the many little ironies within its framework, which she must overcome to amass enough supporters for her cause.
Rich luxurious rooms of the co-op heads contrast the starkly modest lodgings belonging to the farmers, illuminating a gross disparity between the rulers and the ruled. DOP Taniel’s calm and mesmerizing visuals provide the perfect foil for all the ugliness on display in the heat of this rebellious uprising. Through mostly static compositions, relaxedly paced and cozily sequenced (at times almost risking monotony), The County presents a heartfelt (even if not entirely unique) tale of upending the status quo with impressive maturity and sensitivity to details. The characters and power structures may feel achingly familiar, yet it is the way that these social dynamics are adapted ― to fit Inga’s personal tale with utter conviction ― that still keeps the narrative engrossing. Aside from the obvious theme of the individual vs. the collective, there’s a subtle feminist streak governing the plot progression, as Inga’s struggle mostly takes place against males hogging positions of power, dismissing this woman as merely an annoying ― yet ultimately harmless ― source of dissent.
The County begins during winter, the harsh and cold landscapes marking the hardships they were facing, complicated by debt and guilt. As the film progresses, different hues emerge to complement Inga’s multitude of conflicting moods, while also marking the seasonal progression. The closing act is bittersweet ― filmed under the soft warmth of the summer sunlight ― cradling both sorrow and joy, victory and defeat, yet carrying that unmistakable (and maybe a tad obvious) scent of newfound liberation and self-empowerment.