Category Archives: Danish Cinema

BIFF 2013 #9: Love Is All You Need (Den/Swe/Ital/Fra/Ger, 2012)

Trine Dyrholm is Ida

Trine Dyrholm is Ida

BIFF19logoSusanne Bier’s romantic comedy drama is the best mainstream entertainment film I’ve seen in a very long time. The film is partly in English and partly in Danish so the subtitling will unfortunately put off a lot of the audience who would enjoy it if they took the plunge. Given that it features at least one of the stars of recent TV Nordic Noirs perhaps that will entice a few more converts. This isn’t art cinema, it’s a mainstream film that happens to include subtitles. If Slumdog can make it, so can this film – although it could do with a better title.

The film is completely conventional. There are still a few surprises in the way scenes play out, but this is a genre piece. The central character Ida, beautifully played by Trine Dyrholm, is a woman in her forties recovering from breast cancer and a mastectomy. Shocked to discover her husband (Kim Bodnia from The Bridge TV serial) in flagrante with someone from work, she has to get her act together to attend her daughter’s wedding in a villa in Italy owned by the groom’s father, Philip (Pierce Brosnan). She bumps into Philip, literally, in the airport car park. He’s a widower and a seemingly grumpy owner of an international fruit and veg company. You can probably make up the rest yourself. In the best traditions of the Lancashire weddings on Coronation Street, a lot is said and done or not done. So why is the film so wonderful? Partly it is the quality of the acting, partly the script (by Bier and her long-time collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen) but mostly, I think, it is the sensitivity of Susanne Bier’s direction. She can move a scene from the comic to the dramatic and back with such skill that you can’t see the join. Visually the film is stunning. OK, Sorrento is very photogenic but here the colours are pushed to the edge of being beautiful and nearly, but not quite, pushed over into kitsch. If I remember rightly, Susanne Bier studied architecture at some point and the use of the villa is fascinating with several shots, as per Jules et Jim, of the balconies in the morning as the characters come out to look at the sea. The titles of the film are enchanting. I’m not so sure about the music but that’s a minor quibble. In the international market some will be surprised to see a warm comedy from Bier after the success of a string of melodramas but one of her first big successes in Denmark was a romantic comedy (The One and Only in 1999 – which, since it stars Sidse Babett Knudsen would be worth a UK distributer digging out).

In a rather cold review Lesley Felperin in Variety says it’s a film for the middle-aged, which is probably true. But given that in the UK we have been offered a whole stream of films for older viewers, I would argue that this film is far better than the Marigold Hotels and Quartets of the last few years. Susanne Bier is one of the most skilled directors working in European cinema. Compared to Hollywood films (made in the US or the UK) this is a more intelligent and more grown-up romantic comedy drama than we are now able to get from the studios. It reminds us that many years ago we could go to see films by Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks or George Cukor – comedies with great actors and scripts with witty dialogue. What do we get now? Such films do still exist but they are confined to specialised cinema since Hollywood patronises its mainstream audience. Perhaps it needs Susanne Bier to show the studios how it’s done? I don’t really see why younger audiences shouldn’t enjoy the film and it needs to be recorded that Molly Blixt Egelind who plays Astrid, Ida’s daughter, the bride is very good and reminded me a little of Uma Thurman.

BIFF 2013 #8: A Highjacking (Kapringen, Denmark/Kenya 2012)

Roland Møller and Johan Philip Asbæk in Kapringen

Roland Møller and Johan Philip Asbæk in Kapringen

BIFF19logoTobias Lindholm must be currently one of the hottest screenwriting talents in Europe after his work on Borgen and The Hunt. Here he adds directing to his talents in a taut and utterly gripping account of the hijacking of a Danish freighter in the Indian Ocean. Lindholm’s script is an exercise in paring down the drama to just two locations – the shipping offices in Copenhagen and the ship itself. In Copenhagen two of the Borgen actors known to UK audiences, Søren Malling and Dar Salim, are in contact with the ship’s cook (Borgen‘s Johan Philip Asbæk), who the Somali pirates have chosen as a negotiating tool as part of a deliberate strategy. The pirates have their own negotiator, Omar, who speaks good English. He remains a mysterious figure throughout – what is his situation, is he being used against his will, or is it all an act? To counteract this the shipping CEO (the Malling character) recruits an expert negotiator played by a real Copenhagen-based security consultant. All the direct negotiation is in English.

The production was based in Mombasa and the ship itself was once hi-jacked so there is a basis of authenticity which is built on in terms of the script. These hi-jacking negotiations can drag out for weeks and months as time is always on the side of the pirates. The brilliance of the script is to emphasise the waiting but also to provide sufficient moments of increased tension and then release without resorting to the kinds of Hollywood conventions in a film like Argo. Lindholm opts to keep the emotional pressure built up in the families back home in the background, placing it instead on the CEO Peter and the decisions he makes. Malling plays the role very effectively. The whole negotiation process raises the obvious questions about the ‘uncaring capitalist ethic’ – how much is the shipping company prepared to pay, how long will they allow the suffering on the boat to continue? On the other hand, would paying too much too soon encourage the pirates to raise the takes? I don’t know the Danish government policy on hi-jackings but Lindholm keeps external agencies completely out of the narrative and that’s probably a good idea. I’ve seen some questions about the representation of the Somali pirates and it’s also worth noting that there are other crew members on the ship who are not given any real screen time. They too will have friends and family back home somewhere in India or South-East Asia. Someone needs to write a script about them as well. It’s probably asking too much of Lindholm to do that on this project, but it is something that Danish writers need to consider as they make more forays into global stories (not that other film industries are necessarily better at doing this, but Danish film and TV is on something of a roll at the moment).

This is a terrific thriller with not a wasted second. Johan Philip Asbæk is particularly good – I noticed that he had a personal coach to help him put on the pounds and a beard to make a convincing ship’s cook. With its Borgen stars to the fore this should do very well in the UK if Arrow can manage to promote it (and the Susanne Bier film) effectively.

Above the Street and Below the Water (Over gaden under vandet, Denmark 2009)

Anne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Ask (Nicolas Bro) at their counselling session in Above the Street, Below the Water.

Anne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Ask (Nicolas Bro) at their counselling session in Above the Street, Below the Water.

Missing Borgen already and need a fix of Sidse Babett Knudsen? This UK DVD release offers an enjoyable family melodrama with a star-studded cast and some comic scenes. It’s presented in CinemaScope framing and acts as an almost ‘real estate porn’ promo for life on the Copenhagen waterfront. The strange title refers to the close proximity of three couples living around one of the more attractive canals in Copenhagen city centre.

Sidse Babett Knudsen is Anne, an actor preparing for a performance as Ophelia in a new production of Hamlet in the waterfront theatre. She is married to Ask (Nicolas Bro – the Justice Minister in The Killing 2). The marriage isn’t going well and he is having an affair with Bente (Ellen Hillingsø), a drama critic separated from Bjørn (Anders W. Berthelsen – the shipping magnate in The Killing 3). Bjørn is now drinking away his time and living on his boat moored on the canal where he is overlooked by Charlotte (Ellen Nyman) who works as a counsellor and who is currently listening to Anne and Ask fight  through her sessions. Charlotte is married to Carl (Nils Ole Oftebro), the director-manager of the theatre where Anne is to perform her Ophelia. Carl appears to be a ‘serial shagger’ of any passing woman who might be amenable. As well as these interconnections, the children of Anne and Ask and Bente and Bjørn are also in contact – and are seemingly more ‘sorted’ than their parents.

I confess that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It’s slight but has several redeeming features, not least the chance to see Sidse Babett Knudsen in a very different role. She is flustered, forgetful and liable to lose it. She’s also 10lbs overweight and unable to get into her dress as Ophelia and she looks positively ‘raddled’ – a far cry from the perfect Birgitte in Borgen. She’s also brilliant. (Her son in the film is played by the very young Emil Poulsen who repeats the role so successfully in Borgen). All the cast are very good and the director Charlotte Sieling (with plenty of experience directing episodes of The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen) makes sure it moves at a good pace. I’d starting watching it late at night thinking I’d just fit in the first 30 minutes – but I watched the whole film because I got caught up in it. If you don’t like the intertwining narratives of soap opera or the coincidences of melodrama, this won’t be for you – but plenty of us do and this is a very good example of the genre. It’s definitely worth seeking out on rental or download.

Film and TV in Denmark

The Grand Teatret, the principal arthouse cinema in the centre of Copenhagen.

The Grand Teatret, the principal arthouse cinema in the centre of Copenhagen.

Danish film and television is very much a presence in the international arena. With an Oscar nomination for A Royal Affair next month and the extensive international sales of the filmed TV serials The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge, this small European country with a population of only 5.5 million and a language only intelligible to its Scandinavian neighbours is competing effectively with much bigger international players.

According to a Cineuropa report, 2012 was a successful year at the Danish cinema box office with record attendances of 14.2 million – the best for 30 years. 28% of the film market was captured by the 21 Danish releases with the three standouts being A Royal Affair alongside Susanne Bier’s Love Is All You Need and Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis’ This Life. Bier’s film is a romantic comedy-drama starring Pierce Brosnan set for release in several European countries. This Life is a Second World War family drama which I don’t think has sold outside Denmark yet.

The Hunt, which has gathered so much praise around the world, isn’t included in these figures because it wasn’t released in Denmark until 10 January 2013 – when it had the second highest audience figures for an opening weekend since 2000. It was delayed so as not to compete with the other Danish releases, but it has contributed to the success of Danish films at international festivals where they have won 82 prizes from the 272 screenings.

Denmark sees only half the number of film titles released in the UK, France and Germany – 256 in 2011. There are approx. 161 cinemas with 396 screens, but only 18 multiplexes (2011 figures). With local films getting over 20% of the market, around 55% goes directly to Hollywood and 15% to other European films (the biggest earners being UK-US Hollywood productions such as Skyfall, the biggest box-office winner in 2012). Overall Denmark competes with Norway for the role of most cinema visits per head in Scandinavia at around 2.2.

Acoording to Cineuropa’s ‘country profile’ the average budget for a Danish film is €2.3 million with nearly 40% of funding coming from the Danish Film Institute (a useful statistics manual, in English, is available for download) – in 2012 the total DFI Production and Development spend was €39 million. The two main public service broadcasters in Denmark, DR and TV2 are both expected to support the funding of Danish films and to broadcast them. DR’s television serial drama productions such as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge have played a central role in introducing the amazing acting talent in Denmark to audiences worldwide with series sold to terrestrial networks and VOD providers around the world. The serials feature actors who work in cinema features and theatre and episodes are written and directed by creatives also working in cinema. These three serials will go down as marking a change in Denmark’s international film profile much as the first Dogme films did between 1998 and 2002.

King's Game (Kongekabale, Denmark 2004)

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naive Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naïve Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Was this the blueprint for Borgen (and The Killing to some extent)? I missed it altogether on its limited UK release in 2005 and caught it as a VOD offer from Lovefilm (I think it is also available on DVD, but at a price). King’s Game was a major box office and critical winner in Denmark as the first film from Nikolaj Arcel, recently nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with A Royal Affair, one of our films of the year. It is based on a novel by a politician and deals with internecine strife in the Centre Party in Denmark during an election campaign.

The central character is Ulrik, a young journalist played by Anders W. Berthelsen (the father of the abducted child in The Killing III). He suddenly discovers that he has been offered the chance by his newspaper to join the team covering ‘parliamentary affairs’ at Borgen. He has no previous experience of politics except that his father, now a businessman, was once Justice Minister for the Centre Party. His first visit to Borgen occurs when the Centre Party is in disarray after a car crash puts its leader into hospital. He is seriously ill and there are fears for his life. Ulrik is then offered a story (in an indirect way) about the ‘next in line’ at the Centre Party – by the party’s own spin doctor (nicely played by Lars Mikkelsen (Troels, the mayoral candidate) in Killing I. How long will it take the naïve Ulrik to twig that he is being set up? I won’t spoil any more of the plot except to point towards other similarities with Borgen such as the prospect of the first female Prime Minister in Denmark.

I found the film to be very entertaining and pleasingly presented in CinemaScope with crisp and sometimes noirish cinematography. The cast is very strong, especially for a first film. As well as Berthelsen and Mikkelsen, I also recognised Lars Brygmann (who suffers a very similar fate to his character of Troels Höxenhaven in Borgen 2), Nicholas Bro (Justice Minister in The Killing II) and our old friend Bjarne Henriksen (Theis in The Killing I and the Defence Minister in Borgen 1 and 2). This time Henriksen plays a crucial role as a television interviewer. The other lead in the film is played by Søren Pilmark who has an impressive CV but doesn’t appear to have been in either of the two serials that have been successful in the UK. The roles for women are not so good in the film and the principal role of a female political leader is played by the director’s sister Nastja Arcel.

It was interesting to see a more ‘cinematic’ presentation than is usually offered by Borgen, but this came mostly via the thriller elements. I missed the family melodrama elements of the serials and it was interesting that one of the best scenes in the film involved Ulrik dealing with his father – in the presence of his wife. This lack of background for the main characters is possibly the main weakness of the script – but then the film is only a 100 minutes or so and much of the time involves the twists and turns of the investigation. The film has also been criticised for the seeming simplicity of the plot and the ease with which the naïve journalist  is able to tie things together. Fortunately, Berthelsen is such a good actor that I think we go along with him. His character is also resourceful and determined – which makes an interesting dramatic mix with naiveté.

I’m surprised that I haven’t come across references to Kongekabale in discussions of Borgen. I’m sure that British fans of the TV serial would find it an interesting and enjoyable precursor. Here’s a trailer with English subs:

King’s Game (Kongekabale, Denmark 2004)

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naive Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naïve Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Was this the blueprint for Borgen (and The Killing to some extent)? I missed it altogether on its limited UK release in 2005 and caught it as a VOD offer from Lovefilm (I think it is also available on DVD, but at a price). King’s Game was a major box office and critical winner in Denmark as the first film from Nikolaj Arcel, recently nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with A Royal Affair, one of our films of the year. It is based on a novel by a politician and deals with internecine strife in the Centre Party in Denmark during an election campaign.

The central character is Ulrik, a young journalist played by Anders W. Berthelsen (the father of the abducted child in The Killing III). He suddenly discovers that he has been offered the chance by his newspaper to join the team covering ‘parliamentary affairs’ at Borgen. He has no previous experience of politics except that his father, now a businessman, was once Justice Minister for the Centre Party. His first visit to Borgen occurs when the Centre Party is in disarray after a car crash puts its leader into hospital. He is seriously ill and there are fears for his life. Ulrik is then offered a story (in an indirect way) about the ‘next in line’ at the Centre Party – by the party’s own spin doctor (nicely played by Lars Mikkelsen (Troels, the mayoral candidate) in Killing I. How long will it take the naïve Ulrik to twig that he is being set up? I won’t spoil any more of the plot except to point towards other similarities with Borgen such as the prospect of the first female Prime Minister in Denmark.

I found the film to be very entertaining and pleasingly presented in CinemaScope with crisp and sometimes noirish cinematography. The cast is very strong, especially for a first film. As well as Berthelsen and Mikkelsen, I also recognised Lars Brygmann (who suffers a very similar fate to his character of Troels Höxenhaven in Borgen 2), Nicholas Bro (Justice Minister in The Killing II) and our old friend Bjarne Henriksen (Theis in The Killing I and the Defence Minister in Borgen 1 and 2). This time Henriksen plays a crucial role as a television interviewer. The other lead in the film is played by Søren Pilmark who has an impressive CV but doesn’t appear to have been in either of the two serials that have been successful in the UK. The roles for women are not so good in the film and the principal role of a female political leader is played by the director’s sister Nastja Arcel.

It was interesting to see a more ‘cinematic’ presentation than is usually offered by Borgen, but this came mostly via the thriller elements. I missed the family melodrama elements of the serials and it was interesting that one of the best scenes in the film involved Ulrik dealing with his father – in the presence of his wife. This lack of background for the main characters is possibly the main weakness of the script – but then the film is only a 100 minutes or so and much of the time involves the twists and turns of the investigation. The film has also been criticised for the seeming simplicity of the plot and the ease with which the naïve journalist  is able to tie things together. Fortunately, Berthelsen is such a good actor that I think we go along with him. His character is also resourceful and determined – which makes an interesting dramatic mix with naiveté.

I’m surprised that I haven’t come across references to Kongekabale in discussions of Borgen. I’m sure that British fans of the TV serial would find it an interesting and enjoyable precursor. Here’s a trailer with English subs: