Film

Review: Grief and Loss Drive the Fight Against Corruption and Injustice in The County

In Grímur Hákonarson’s The County, a woman confronts not only the unexpected death of her spouse but the corrupt company that holds a monopoly over the small family farm they’d managed together. During a time when it would be understandably all anyone could do to keep their own lives in one piece, managing their own grief and that of the family now coping with its patriarch’s absence, Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) somehow finds the wherewithal to stand up to the corporate forces that she and her husband—and their community of family-owned farms—are forced to do business with, even when that business leaves them holding the short end of the stick. With this central performance key to the film’s overall effectiveness, the result is something relatively thin, perhaps never quite as galvanizing as other “stick it to the man” dramas, but still rather compelling in a moment when it’s easy to cheer on anyone daring to speak truth to power.

The County

Image courtesy of Dekanalog

Inga and Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) live on their rural Icelandic farm, Dalsmynni, raising cows for their milk and still doing much of the day-to-day work themselves. It’s exhausting and never-ending, and by the time they crawl into bed at the end of a long day, they barely touch each other. Perhaps it’s because Inga is still working, laptop propped up on her knees as she sits up against pillows; perhaps it’s because they’ve been married long enough, now with grown children, that their marriage is simply settled into the affection of a lifelong partnership. Either way, it’s clear these two are, if not without worries, at least comfortable in their lives and certainly with each other. Which makes it all that much more heartbreaking when Inga is at home asleep late one night and she gets the call all of us dread: there’s been an accident, and Reynir didn’t survive.

Because there is always work to do at Dalsmynni, Inga and her children can’t take long to mourn their loss; there’s a funeral, and they bury Reynir’s ashes in a small hillside cemetery. But the cows need feeding and milking, and the work of a farm charges ahead, no matter what. Now tasked with managing it all herself, Inga learns firsthand the uphill battles Reynir had been fighting, to whatever degree he could, with the co-op, the organization all the local farms are contracted not only to sell their goods to but through which they must buy all their supplies and wares. In theory, it’s a strong and valuable arrangement, the collective of many small farms banding together to earn everyone lower prices to buy and higher prices to sell. Reynir is barely cold in the ground, however, when the head of the co-op, Eyjólfur (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), stops by Dalsmynni to remind Inga just how tied to the organization she and the farm are. Reynir may have left her in debt and shopping elsewhere for her supplies might mean she can get a better deal, but the whole collective would suffer if one member breaks the covenants to which they’ve all agreed.

Channeling her deep grief into something more productive, Inga determines to push back against this arrangement, first in brief conversations with co-op leadership and then, when they won’t listen to reason, to committee meetings and finally door to door to her fellow members. Throughout, Egilsdóttir carries Inga with a sort of stubborn resolve. None of this, it seems, is what she’d like to be doing, but after learning more about the circumstances of Reynir’s death, it’s all but impossible for her to ignore it. The grief still finds its way in now and then, but soon her convictions take over and her initial frustrations with the powers that be become outright protests, spraying a tankard of fresh milk all over the co-op offices in an act of defiance that’s as uncharacteristically rebellious of her as it is hilarious. And these two sides of the revolutionary coin are what is ultimately at odds in The County, as Hákonarson (2015’s Rams) sometimes can’t seem to decide if this is a movie about a woman who suffers immense loss and is forced to carry on in the midst of injustice or about the dangers of monopolistic practices, even well-intentioned ones like co-ops. With Egilsdóttir’s fierce and emotive performance at its center, it’s a film with enough interesting things to say about both to make a visit to Dalsmynni worthwhile.

The County is now streaming in virtual cinemas, including via Music Box Theatre.

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