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What Hollywood can learn from 'A Hijacking' and Danish cinema

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Rob Watts tells us why we should be taking note of Danish cinema...

Poster for the Danish film 'A Hijacking'

Recently the film A Hijacking (Kapringen in Danish) was released on DVD in the UK. It is the latest in a string of high quality films from the country that brought us Hans Christian Andersen and Danish pastries.

It is now well known that the Danes can produce fantastic television drama – The Killing (Forbrydelsen), Borgen, The Bridge (Broen) – but what may be less obvious is that they have a thriving film industry. For the last twenty years, Danish film has mostly been associated with the Dogme 95 movement conceived by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. And these two directors have made some brilliant films in their time, mostly as they’ve begun to stray from the original manifesto. However, were it not for the early films such as Festen and The Idiots (Idioterne), Danish film may have remained largely off the map. Dogme 95 even launched the career of Oscar winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) and brought digital film-making to the forefront.

!It is this focus on the very real, emotional side of the situation that heightens the tension throughout. It will be interesting to see if Tom Hanks’ upcoming Captain Phillips deals with a similar plot in as true a way."

Danish cinema...an area of rising talent?

In recent years, both von Trier and Vinterberg have produced some films that have topped many people’s ‘Film Of The Year’ polls, such as the brilliant apocalypse drama Melancholia (starring Kirsten Dunst!), the horrific Antichrist, the emotionally manipulative musical Dancer in the Dark (with Bjork!), and a film I will discuss later, The Hunt (or Jagten). Due for release on Christmas Day 2013 in Denmark is Nymphomaniac, the next film from von Trier, which promises to be darkly funny and very explicit, and Vinterberg is currently filming an adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd starring Carey Mulligan, Juno Temple and Michael Sheen. 2014 is shaping up to be a year full of big-hitting films with Danish origins!

Another director who has worked his way up to Hollywood simultaneously is Nicolas Winding Refn, of modern classic Drive fame. Starting with Pusher in 1996 (which has recently been remade in English), Refn has continuously made interesting (and quite often brutal), always entertaining and sometimes outstanding films. He launched the career of Mads Mikkelsen, a prolific Danish actor, and provided one of the most iconic and cool characters of all time in Ryan Gosling’s Driver. In films like Bronson and Only God Forgives Refn mixes brutal violence with a unique visual style that has been missing in most Hollywood movies for a long time.

You'd be Mads to miss it

Nicolas Winding Refn's 'Valhalla Rising' (2009), starring Mads Mikkelsen, was critically acclaimed...

Refn teamed up with Mads Mikkelsen for the Norse warrior film Valhalla Rising in 2009, and the actor who played Le Chiffre in the rebooted Bond movie Casino Royale has continued to make interesting and smart choices with his roles. Starring in 2012’s The Hunt, Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a man wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a child. For this role he won the Best Actor award at Cannes. Vinterberg’s film is in many ways reminiscent of Dancer in the Dark, with the central character subject to a series of unfortunate events sadly beyond their control.

Throughout, The Hunt ratchets up the tension and keeps the audience’s chest muscles tight for the entire running time. This is a film where you just want to step in and clear everything up (as I certainly did with Selma’s situation in DitD) and hope the film has a happy resolution. Not quite as emotionally manipulative as von Trier’s film, The Hunt is still an emotional roller-coaster ride that, come the conclusion, leaves you in a state of uneasy contentment.

Of course, Mikkelsen is fantastic, but perhaps more interestingly, he has recently taken the step over to television to play a movie icon; one Hannibal Lecter. The boots of Anthony Hopkins and Brian Cox are big ones to fill, but the general consensus is that in Hannibal the Danish actor is mesmerising as the serene psychopath.

Mads’ brother Lars Mikkelsen is also an actor and played with aplomb the politician and candidate for Mayor of Copenhagen, Troels Hartmann, in The Killing. He is also soon to be seen as Charles Augustus Magnussen in the third series of BBC’s Sherlock. Good casting!

Upcoming Danish

Of the recent crop of great Danish films is another Mads Mikkelsen picture, A Royal Affair (or En Kongelig Affære). Mark Kermode proclaimed this historical drama one of his films of 2012 and it is easy to see why. The mix of beautiful period costume with a saucy, dramatic and political story works better than many recent British costume dramas that it bears some resemblance to (such as The Other Boleyn Girl). Alicia Vikander (stunningly beautiful and starring in the upcoming film version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) plays Caroline Matilde, the wife of mentally ill King Christian VII (played by Mikkel Følsgaard), and the film focuses on her romance with the royal physician Struensee (Mikkelsen) as they start a revolution in Denmark. Everything looks beautiful, the story is intriguing and captivating, and the performances are all fantastic. And blink and you’ll miss Søren Malling, the prolific actor who played Sarah Lund’s partner Jan Meyer in The Killing.

Hijacking the audience

Which brings us neatly back around to A Hijacking, in which Malling stars as Peter C. Ludvigsen, the CEO of a company whose cargo ship is hijacked by Somali pirates somewhere on the Indian ocean. Unlike the standard Hollywood hostage situation movie (which would no doubt feature plenty of action set pieces), the plot of A Hijacking deals with the long, protracted and true to life situation of modern day pirates and their willingness to wait months and months (to the detriment of the crew and the pirates themselves) until they get what they want. In this case the pirates’ ransom is many millions of US dollars.

The story, written and directed by Tobias Lindholm (Borgen, The Hunt), is told from two points of view. When on board the ship we see events through the eyes of the ship’s cook (played by Pilou Asbæk of Borgen and The Borgias), while back in Copenhagen we see the events play out from Peter’s perspective. Both environments are visually distinct; on board the ship the camera work is shaky and handheld, with everything looking filthy and disgusting, whereas in the office the camera remains more static and everything is clean and sharp, including Peter’s suits for the entirety of the hijacking.

'A Hijacking' is Danish film's alternative to Hollywood's 'Captain Phillips' (2013), which stars Tom Hanks...

Lindholm expertly depicts the effects of such a stressful situation on a variety of characters. The cook and crew begin to starve and succumb to illness from living in squalor on board the ship, Peter battles with moral and monetary dilemmas, while everyone’s families deal with the possibility of losing their loved ones. It is this focus on the very real, emotional side of the situation that heightens the tension throughout. It will be interesting to see if Tom Hanks’ upcoming Captain Phillips deals with a similar plot in as true a way. With Paul Greengrass directing there is bound to be one similarity between the two films – shaky, handheld camerawork!

The film may be a tough watch but it is a fantastic piece of cinema with great performances throughout from Asbæk and Malling (the latter of which I saw on a recent trip to Copenhagen outside a café recommended by Sofie Grabøl in The Guardian!) I look forward to seeing what comes next from Lindholm et al. All I know is that Malling has quite a full beard at the moment, for an upcoming role perhaps?

Dawn of the Danes

And so it is clear that much of the current crop of acclaimed Danish films have been hard-hitting dramas, but when they are constructed and acted so confidently and with such aplomb it is hard to complain that the Danes are sticking to what they know. Thanks to the success of certain auteur directors and ‘Nordic Noir’ television, directors, writers and actors have been given a chance at producing interesting, individual pieces of drama for the big screen. An opportunity they have seized brilliantly.

Here’s to more fantastic Danish cinema in the years to come!


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