Somehow I missed Rams Grímur Hákonarson’s 2015 film about Icelandic sheep farmers which won great plaudits. The County has similarly caught the critics’ attention.
Like Rams it is set in rural Iceland. Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) and Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) own a remote dairy farm, although as we later learn ‘owning’ is a misnomer as everything belongs to the Co-op. The opening scene sets the tone for what follows: Inga stoically delivering a calf on her own, using chains to pull it out, her face set with calm but grim determination to get the job done. The camera lingers on all the high-tech equipment – at last I understand what a robotic milking parlour is, much-talked about in The Archers (and much of this reminded me of my favourite radio drama – ‘an everyday story of country folk’). Everything is programmed by computer, be it muck-spraying or milking.
But all this comes at a price. Reynir is disenchanted with being in thrall to the Co-op. Admittedly it buys their milk and lends them money for all that equipment to help them survive the bleak Icelandic conditions, but the cost of straying from the fold is high – bankruptcy. The Co-op brooks no free market. Reynir has had enough and sets off to tell local boss Eyjólfur (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) that he’s out. It’s a trip from which he never returns: his truck veers off the road in a suspicious accident.
Inga is also fed up with never having a holiday and has wanted out herself, but Reynir’s attachment to the family farm has been too strong. She channels her grief into fulfilling Reynir’s legacy of taking on the Co-op. Using Facebook, she posts a blog about the Co-op mafia and her intention to expose its corruption.
At first the local farmers are appalled and shun her but gradually she wins them round. They, too, are fed up with being fleeced by price-fixing and being forced to buy everything from the Co-op – and being shopped by a mysterious informer when they break the cartel rules. The penalties for such disobedience are high. And so the revolt begins.
This is a story about the little people taking on the big people in a tiny country with a dispersed population. Yet it has great resonances for all of us about human courage, of fighting for fairness and right over wrong. Inga is a middle-aged heroine mostly dressed in farm overalls and certainly no glamourpuss but her determination is writ in the lines on her face, in her faint smile as she sprays the Co-op headquarters with milk from her computerised slurry spreader, her dignity as she delivers her plea to the community to rise up against the oppressors.
The enemy is not a typical mafia don – he is an elderly farmer, who calls Inga ‘dear’ while dishing out sweet tea and sympathy wearing a wooly jumper (very Nordic noir) but who honestly (I think) believes that the Co-op represents the best interests for his county and is determined to offer paternalistic protection for people’s own good. Why don’t they understand? So are dictatorships born.
All this takes place in a bleak and rugged landscape. The camera sweeps over the vistas, the eerie soundtrack emphasises the desolation. It’s an absorbing and engulfing 90 minutes.