You may be asking yourself: have I reached that point in lockdown where I’m watching Icelandic dramas about the price of milk? Yes, you have, is the short answer. But let me qualify that with: if you are going to watch Icelandic dramas about the price of milk, The County is a good choice. And surprisingly involving. Or, to put it another way: I have never cared more about the price of milk in Iceland and it may be I’ll never care as much about the price of milk in Iceland again. Although you never know.
Written and directed by Grimur Hakonarson, whose breakthrough film was the wonderful Rams (2015), this is set in a rural, remote part of the country amid a farming community who are just about getting by but do wear great knitwear, you can’t help but notice. One couple, Reynir (Hinrik Olafsson) and Inga (Arndis Hronn Egilsdottir), run a small dairy farm. They are up to their neck in debt to the powerful local co-operative and work ceaselessly. They haven’t had a holiday for years. Their life is their livestock and their pillow talk is, excitingly, all about when the artificial inseminator is due to visit. We like Inga from the off because even though the process of milking is now highly robotic she knows every cow by name, which has to be a measure of character, or at least it is in my book. (I love cows.) But when Reynir suddenly dies, she discovers the extent of the co-op’s bullying and corruption — what price those robotics? — and takes a stand. Can she win? And will the rest of the community support her?
This is clean and simple, a David vs Goliath story where we always know exactly what is at stake and whose side we’re on so there are no surprises here. But it’s distinguished by the austere beauty of the landscape, the great knitwear, which looks horribly itchy but could be something you get used to, and Egilsdottir’s terrific performance as a middle-aged woman coming into her own in what is still a male-dominated society. (Her performance most put me in mind of Frances McDormand.)
There is little expository dialogue. A scene may simply involve Inga marching across a frosted field or driving her tractor, or a bearded man wandering into a room, which doesn’t narrow it down much, as there appears to be no shortage of men with beards in Iceland. (Which beard is this? you will also be asking yourself. Is it the nice beard who is supportive or the nasty beard from the co-op?) But it builds cumulatively as you comprehend more and more, sort out which beard is which, and root for Inga and her brave, escalating campaign of defiance. There’s a scene involving cowpats and another to do with the milk she can’t sell that will have you yelling at the screen: go, Inga, go!
The film concludes with a vote — will the community stay with the co-op or form its own dairy association? — and by this stage I was so involved I was on the edge of my seat. It’s probably not the most on the edge of my seat I’ve ever been, but I was definitely there all the same. It may be that the vote goes the way you think it will or it may be that it does not. No spoilers here. Instead, I will just say that if you’re only going to watch one film about the price of milk in Iceland, make it this one.