After the death of her dairy farmer husband, a middle-aged woman courageously sacrifices her livelihood to speak out against the corruption and injustice at work in her community in the audience-pleasing, humanist drama “The County.” Like writer-director Grímur Hákonarson’s previous film “Rams,” it probes a deeply rooted rural culture that is closely connected to the Icelandic national spirit, while championing traditional Icelandic values over the exploitive underside of capitalism. The yin to that film’s yang, “The County” is full of feisty female energy and imagery, and sprinkled with rousing “you go girl!” comic moments. Niche arthouse play is a given for this appealing and endearingly modest tale.
Hard-working couple Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) and Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) run Dalsmynni, a mom-and-pop dairy farm that has been in his family for generations. With money tight and their hours long, they haven’t been able to take a vacation for three years. At night, they are so fatigued that they can barely manage to mumble, “Did you call the inseminator?” or “Did you order the fertilizer?” before collapsing into bed.
They have converted their barn into a robotic operation in order to produce more milk. But the associated expenses increased their debt to the local co-op, which has the monopoly on buying their products and in return, selling them supplies — all at prices that are considerably higher than they could obtain online or in Reykjavik.
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After Reynir’s truck goes off the road one rainy night, the bereft Inga finds that their debt is larger than she thought and the co-op is breathing down her neck for some form of repayment. She considers declaring bankruptcy and letting them have it all, but (spoiler alert) when Reynir’s friend Fridgeir (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson) reveals how the scheming co-op boss Eyjólfur (Sigurður Sigurjónsson, so good as the protagonist of “Rams”) and his heavy-set enforcer Leifur (Hannes Óli Ágústsson) forced her husband to inform on those who spent their money elsewhere by threatening to foreclose on the farm, it inflames her sense of injustice.
The auburn-haired Inga shows stereotypical stubbornness and temper, and has an account on Facebook where she details the co-op’s dirty dealings and compares them to a Mafia. As the word spreads, even to the national news, her outspokenness creates a rift in the local Dairy Farmers Assn., where everyone is dependent on the co-op to some extent and many prefer not to rock the boat.
As repercussions mount, Inga gathers her strength and fights back in classic underdog fashion. Hákonarson has loads of visual fun with these David-and-Goliath moments. When the thuggish Leifur threatens her over the load of fertilizer she just received from Reykjavik (saving 300,000 Icelandic crowns in the process), she scoops a shovel of her imported excrement over the windshield of his fancy car. More memorable yet is the scene in which Inga drives to town in her red tractor and sprays a massive stream of milk all over the co-op building.
Once again showing a keen eye for detail, Hákonarson naturalistically presents the rigors of farm work, the plainness of his solitary protagonists’ lives and their affection for their cows. They may be by-the-number bovines to Reynir, but for Inga, they each have names. Spot-on production design by Bjarni Massi Sigurbjornsson supplies comfortable, lived-in interiors for the dairy farmers that look as if they haven’t changed since the 1940s, but which present a marked contrast to the classy open rooms and art of Eyjólfur’s water-view home and his stable of expensive horses.
In her first leading film role, veteran theater and TV thesp Egilsdóttir (“Sparrows,” “Under the Tree”) makes Inga a sympathetic and convincing earth mother, Indeed, nearly the first shot of the film is her helping a cow to calf. But she also knows how to load and fire a gun and operate the big rigs. Meanwhile, her antagonists are more nuanced than they would be in other hands.
Leading the sturdy production package, ace Estonian cameraman Mart Tanel (“November)”, a FAMU classmate of Hákonarson’s, always keeps the unique landscape as an important part of the story, albeit not quite the prime and primal character it played in “Rams.”