Tag Archives: political thriller

The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes, Sweden/Denmark/Germany 2009)

Mikael Nykvist as ‘Kallie’ Blomkvist

(I discovered this in a pile of unpublished posts. I’m posting it now as a tribute to Mikael Nykvist who died ridiculously young (of lung cancer) at 56 in June 2017. I also note that a second ‘follow up’ title in the Millennium series by David Lagercrantz has been published in the UK and that Sony has now decided to produce an adaptation of the first Lagercrantz follow-up, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Apparently Claire Foy is now to undertake the Lisbeth Salander role and the film comes out in a few weeks. I do wish they wouldn’t do this. I’ve read the Lagercrantz book and it’s fine but I’ve already forgotten the story. I’d prefer that the Anglo-American takeover of the Millennium series had never happened and that Stieg Larsson’s estate had stopped further exploitation. The original Nordic versions of the three central characters played by Noomi Rapace, Mikael Nykvist and Lena Endre will remain as the embodiment of Larsson’s characters for me.) 

The third instalment of the Millennium film trilogy suffered from the ‘diminishing returns’ that most film series eventually produce in terms of audience numbers. Certainly when I contemplated watching the film I felt dragged down by the knowledge that the third novel was extremely densely plotted and I’d been told that the third film was the weakest. In fact, I found it more enjoyable than the second film and possibly more interesting than the first (though of course not as thrilling to watch).

Annika Blomkvist (Annika Hallin) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in court.

If you haven’t either read the trilogy or seen the first two films, much of this film may well pass you by. As was the case with the first film, the Swedish title offers a more useful clue to the way the narrative works with its reference to ‘castles in the air’ that are brought down. The first film’s Swedish title was ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ in which investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist exposes a family of rich industrialists as fascists and violent misogynists. Lisbeth Salander is his co-investigator and her experiences during the investigation set up the second story which indeed has her central role given in the title – as the ‘girl who played with fire’. The reason for her attack on her father as a 12 year-old is revealed as the motivation she requires to seek him out. But at the end of the second book, Lisbeth has nearly been killed and she spends most of the third story in hospital recovering. The narrative effectively passes back to Mikael who, with his sister the lawyer Annika and Lisbeth’s loyal hacker contact ‘Plague’, finds the evidence that both liberates Lisbeth and exposes a whole secret network of Cold War warriors of the worst sort, first established in the 1980s without the knowledge of the Swedish government executive. Lisbeth’s ‘legal incompetence’ is one requirement of keeping the network created around her father secret.

Promoting Lisbeth, one of the great female characters of the last twenty years, ahead of the seemingly less interesting Blomkvist as an investigator is perhaps inevitable when marketing these stories. The final section of the film in which Lisbeth makes an electrifying court experience alongside Annika is a fitting climax to the story of female solidarity that is there in the novels but is to some extent sidelined in the earlier films. Blomkvist for me is not ‘uninteresting’ and he gives the Millennium series its spine and ties it back into the tradition of Swedish noir and police procedurals initiated by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö with their Martin Beck books, followed up by Henning Mankell and his Wallander novels. Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist rather than a police inspector, but he has the same dogged determination to solve the crime and expose the bad guy. He’s a middle-aged and not particularly glamorous character (which is why Daniel Craig was arguably a poor casting choice in the David Fincher adaptation of the first novel in the trilogy). By bringing together ‘Martin Beck’ and ‘Pippi Longstocking’, Stieg Larsson certainly hit on a good way to attract a broad audience in Sweden. Re-reading the Martin Beck books recently, I noticed that the Swedish ‘secret service’ agency, Säkerhetspolisen, usually abbreviated as Säpo was a target for Sjöwall and Wahlöö and turns up again in the Millennium Trilogy.

With fascism on the rise again in Europe it’s important to keep Sieg Larsson’s trilogy alive as a warning. Here’s the original Swedish trailer with English subs:

 

Gholam (UK-Iran 2017)

Surreal lighting is used in this promotional image for Gholam

This unusual film places a major Iranian star actor, known in the West for three leading roles in the films of Asghar Farhadi, into a downbeat slow-paced thriller set in parts of North London. The director is Mitra Tabrizian, Professor of Photography at the University of Westminster whose 2005 exhibition ‘Border’ appears to have been the starting point for a script written with Cyrus Massoudi. The film was a first feature for both Tabrizian and Massoudi. The impressive cinematography is by South African DoP Dewald Aukema (who photographed Skin (UK-RSA 2008), one of the most viewed posts on this blog). Overall, the film is very impressive, although it is oddly let down by barely visible subtitling (a thin white typeface), sometimes lost against white backgrounds. The two main languages are English and Farsi.

The dismal bedsit where Gholam (Shahab Hosseini) spends his brief leisure time

Shahab Hosseini plays the eponymous central character, a forty-something Iranian living in a dingy bedsit in what I take to be North East London, possibly Hackney/Dalston? Gholam drives a taxi by night and works in a very quiet garage for an older Iranian migrant by day. He has an uncle who runs a Persian cafe locally and he is subject to telephone calls from his mother in Tehran, wanting him to return home. There isn’t a great deal of plot, but a double narrative develops when Gholam is recognised by another Iranian as someone who was something of a hero as a teenage ‘warrior’, presumably in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. Now he refuses to countenance helping in some form of covert activity (the narrative is actually set in 2011 during various forms of unrest in the Middle East). At the same time he has an altercation with three young white thugs who refuse to pay after travelling in his taxi. Throughout the film, Gholam seems disturbed and his mood seems to pervade the whole film. Here is a man who seems mired in his own despondency, unsure of what he wants to do and especially whether to return to Iran (we don’t know if he is a refugee or what his residency status in the UK might be). Despite this there are strangers (other migrants) who offer him kind words in shops or food stalls. He also meets and befriends a much older African-Caribbean woman (played by the veteran of many UK films and TV programmes, Corinne Skinner-Carter) and her chirpy neighbour played by Tracie Bennett a Lancastrian actor I haven’t seen for quite a while. These friendships seem positive but they have links to Gholam’s eventual fate.

I’m not sure what to make of this film. The performances are all strong and I should mention Gholam’s young cousin Arash (played by British-Iranian actor Armin Karima) who has embraced skate-boarding and rap, but still admires his older relative. As might be expected, Tabrizian has a strong feel for her migrant community characters and the London streets. There were moments when I thought about Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (2009) and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), both set in similar London migrant communities with that sense of the ‘invisible workers’ driving taxis, cleaning hotels and offices etc. – or running food stalls and social clubs. The Iranian migrant in Europe is also featured in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) set in Paris and The Charmer (Denmark-Sweden 2017) by Milad Alami and set in Copenhagen. Gholam seems the most austere of all these films and it does need Shahab Hosseini’s commanding performance to sustain our interest. However, the thriller aspect takes over in the last section.

The setting of the garage seems to be inspired by this original image taken from the ‘Border’ exhibition by Mitra Tabrizian in 2005.

I’m surprised and also disappointed with my own lack of knowledge about Mitra Tabrizian. When I found her website, which lists the various projects and academic partnerships she has initiated or been part of since the 1980s, I realised that I certainly should have known this history. The film is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall and Jules Wright (who was a major figure in theatre and the art world, latterly as director of the Wapping Project). Tabrizian herself is an important link between Iranian and Western art practice in cinema and photography. Her collaborators on Gholam are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and she similarly elicited support from the wider arts community in London. This makes the film distinctive but also means that it feels caught somewhere between a kind of downbeat neo-realist thriller and the kind of essay film that might be produced by someone like John Akomfrah. Tabrizian’s visual eye is complemented by the use of Iranian music on record and by tabla and oud music at various points. Distributed by Miracle Films, Gholam has received some good reviews and I would certainly recommend it. Its actual cinema appearances are likely to be only odd dates in sometimes out of the way places (see the official website for planned screenings) and VOD may be your best bet to catch it. It is currently playing on MUBI in the UK. Here’s the trailer:

The Code (Australia 2014)

Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) attempts to break into an encrypted document

Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) attempts to break into an encrypted document

The Code is an Australian serial narrative in 6 x 60 mins episodes. It combines a mystery with a conspiracy/political thriller/investigative journalism story. The setting is in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) of Canberra and a small town in the bush where a young Aboriginal couple are involved in a car crash. Who caused the crash and how did the couple’s car end up dumped in a quarry with the girl dead and the boy subsequently hospitalised?

The different aspects of what is a familiar genre narrative involve a pair of computer hackers, one of whom is on the autistic spectrum and the other who is the daughter of Iranian refugees. Hacking and decrypting are central to the narrative and several of the data exchanges are represented on screen as text and numerical data ‘floating’ over the image. Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) and Hani (Adele Perovic) have both been previously warned about their activities  by government agencies and Jesse struggles to keep a job and keep away from hacking. He is effectively ‘looked after’ by his elder brother Ned (Dan Spielman), a journalist now working for an internet news site. The main interest for me was the interrelationships between Jesse, Ned and Hani when Ned stumbles across a connection between the car crash in the bush and various machinations in the Australian Prime Minister’s Office – focused on the Deputy Prime Minister who is also Foreign Affairs Minister (and played by David Wenham, the major Hollywood actor in the cast). Ned’s ‘inside source’ is his ex, Sophie, the Head of Communications in the PM’s office.

Aaron Pedersen and Lucy Lawless – underused in the narrative?

Aaron Pedersen and Lucy Lawless – underused in the narrative?

Out in the bush the crash attracts the attention of the local schoolteacher Alex (Lucy Lawless aka Xena: Warrior Princess) and her ex, Tim the local police sergeant (Aaron Pedersen – see Mystery Road). This narrative strand proved a disappointment for me since I thought it wasn’t properly exploited by the writer, the experienced Shelley Birse. Two of the best-known actors in the production were under-used, as was the location.

Overall, however, I thought the serial was well-directed and nicely shot. The Australian Parliament building in ACT was used imaginatively and its design was worked into the credit sequence which also drew on the idea of data exchanges which are being monitored and intercepted. There have been plenty of Australian TV shows on UK TV in the past, but this one made by Playmaker and first shown on the Australian public service channel ABC1 in September seems to mark a change. Playmaker is run by former executives from Fox Australia and my reading of some of the coverage of The Code is that whereas previously Australian productions have been pale imitations of Hollywood imports, this one appears to draw directly on the recent surge of Nordic Noir productions that have had such a major impact in global television trading. As well as the UK, the serial has been sold to the US and to DR in Denmark. The Killing is certainly one of the touchstones for The Code and House of Cards might be another one.

Like many other viewers I was confused by the closing scenes of The Code. If I read the final scene correctly, there was an open ending and something very worrying might be about to happen. Probably I misunderstood, but I’d certainly watch a follow-up. The relationship between Jesse and Ned and then between Jesse and Hani worked very well for me. Putting aside the fantastical conventions of the genre (MacBooks that operate three or four times faster than mine!) I thought the portrayal of Jesse and his struggles with conforming to ‘ordinary’ social interactions was believable and moving rather than just another plot point.

This is the ABC Trailer:

In the UK, the serial should still be on iPlayer and a DVD is out soon from Arrow. The show’s Wikipedia page has details of distribution in other territories.

The East (US/UK 2013)

Apparently 'spin the bottle' is popular in anarchist circles.

Apparently ‘spin the bottle’ is popular in anarchist circles.

The East is one of those films that tries to be ‘radical’ in a Hollywood context. It’s a Scott Free Production (Ridley Scott’s company with Tony Scott receiving a posthumous credit) released by Fox but generally discussed as coming  from its writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-star Brit Marling. The couple have already produced two earlier titles which I haven’t seen. This one didn’t work for me but it  is interesting in terms of its generic roots and some of its casting decisions.

Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent now working for a private intelligence/security organisation. Her task is to infiltrate an ‘eco-terrorist’ group called ‘The East’. The group organises ‘jams’ – stunts designed to extract vengeance in the biblical sense of ‘an eye for eye’ directed towards the owners and CEOs of corporations who have caused direct harm to communities through their commercial policies on pollution, (lack of) testing of products etc.

The scenario of police/’security’ officers on deep cover missions, often lasting several years, is news again in the UK at the moment and it is an interesting topic. But this fictional US story (though supposedly using some real news stories as material) is rather different in that the lead character seems able to leave the group and come back and operate with two separate identities. The film narrative draws on several older cycles of films from various genres, supplying plot lines and also characters and visualisations. I was reminded of scenes from Gattaca (the security company itself as a fortress – bland and corporate on the outside like the hospital in Coma). Much of the iconography of someone on the run/undercover around Washington DC is reminiscent of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State. Not so much in plot terms but in its political implications the film reminds us of the cycle of paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Unfortunately, The East doesn’t carry the same disturbance factor for the audience.

‘The East’ is one of several separate ‘cells’ which are linked together. I didn’t really understand this and the politics of ‘anarchist’ groups is never properly represented or discussed. Crucially in terms of visualising the cell’s activities, The East appears to operate from a derelict house set in woodland somewhere on the Eastern seaboard. This gives the ‘community’ a ‘return to nature’ feel that one hand feels very traditional – the Thoreau-like sense of ‘real America’ – but also refers to Hollywood’s ideas about hippy communes, survivalist terrorists in the backwoods or perhaps survivors in some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia. There is also a religious discourse that I have to confess I didn’t properly latch onto. Being ‘washed’ in the lake is a feature of being accepted by the group – as I read afterwards. I also didn’t understand what Sarah was doing all the time, but I read in other reviews that she is meant to be a committed Christian who listens to ‘Christian radio’ (I always wondered who listened to those stations or God TV – it seems a very unlikely pastime for an undercover agent). The most positive spin I can put on the woodland setting is that it reminded me of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with the ‘rebels’ walking around the woods memorising books that have been burned in the outside world.

The big problem with the film is that the narrative form usually associated with this genre has only a few possible outcomes. The hero is usually either a counter-culture/radical character or a professional God-fearing American security officer. The latter can ‘win’ by closing down the terrorist cell, the former must die, get brainwashed or there must be a compromise that allows the corporate villains to be brought back into the capitalist fold. Hollywood can’t really countenance anything else. In this case Sarah’s character complicates the narrative in that she finds her own ‘third way’ of dealing with things. I won’t spoil the narrative development but it seemed naïve at best as a way of closing the narrative.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ms Marling is clearly an intelligent woman who has written a strong female role for a thriller – but for me the star of the film should have been Ellen Page who is rather wasted in a smaller role. Having said that, Ms Page is very distinctive and doesn’t fade into the background well. Brit Marling’s Sarah goes undercover by lightening her hair but this means that she looks like she’s slumming it for most of the time and at the end of the film all I could think was that she looked ‘prissy’ in a skirt and blouse. I’m not sure why, but this seemed to be inappropriate in some way. But I don’t want to be too hard on the film. It is low-budget by Hollywood standards and has had only a limited release in the North America. In the UK it has got into multiplexes with 123 prints, just scraping into the Top 15.

The film is a US/UK production and from my perspective it is interesting that the other three main characters are played by a Canadian (Ellen Page), a Swede (Alexander Skarsgård) and a Yorkshireman (Toby Kebbell) – and very good they are too. I don’t think the film works but I’m pleased to see a real attempt to make this kind of film and I look forward to more films on topics like this.

Rebellion (L’ordre et la morale, France 2011)

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

Philippe (Mathieu Kassovitz) has the difficult role as negotiator

One of the best films to be released in the UK in 2013 looks like being one of the least seen. That’s a shame. If you are one of what I imagine to be many cinephiles disappointed that Mathieu Kassovitz had seemed unable to make another film as powerful as La haine, here is proof to the contrary. L’order et la morale is a hugely ambitious film that took Kassovitz several years to make. It recounts what happened in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia in 1988 when an ‘uprising’ of Kanak people on one of the small islands of Melanesia resulted in a ‘hostage situation’ involving a group of French gendarmerie. Unfortunately, the timing of the events during the French presidential election backfired on the rebels. Despite the best efforts of the negotiation team led by Captain Philippe Legorjus of the GIGN (the counter-terrorist unit of the Gendarmerie), the situation was ‘resolved’ with overwhelming military firepower and loss of life. The script is largely based on the memoirs of Legorjus, played by Kassovitz himself in the film.

Kassovitz was once known as l’enfant terrible of French cinema. La haine (1995) was a great critical as well as commercial success in exposing police relations with the youth of les cités, the workers’ estates surrounding Paris where many second-generation migrants grew up. But Kassovitz’s next film Assassin(s) (1997) attacked the media and the young director was savaged by some of the same critics who had praised him for La haine. That film has never been released in the UK and I haven’t seen it. After that Kassovitz moved into directing English language genre films with steadily declining success – while at the same time developing a career as an actor, including an important role in Amélie, enabling him to develop an international profile as both actor and director. What is clear now is that he spent a great deal of time and effort in working on L’ordre et la morale. In the end he decided to play the central role himself, primarily for pragmatic reasons in that the production was so protracted that he couldn’t reasonably ask another actor to take the role. He’s extremely good at suggesting the highly professional approach of Philippe Legorjus (an approach he discusses in the film’s Press Pack).

I confess that the film does demand an audience willing to follow the complex rivalries between the different organisations that comprise the French armed forces and also the unique problems associated with the French political system and its electoral processes. Like the American president, the President of France can sometimes find himself (no women yet) constrained as an executive by the actions of a legislature run by the opposition. But in France the situation is even more crippling because of the cabinet government led by a Prime Minister. In 1988, socialist President Francois Mitterand faced a re-election contest against the candidate of the right, the Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac. This was the climax of the period known as ‘Co-habitation’. I don’t fully understand how the split of executive powers affected the events in New Caledonia. Mitterand should have had more power in dealing with events overseas, yet as a French ‘overseas territory’ perhaps New Caledonia was considered part of France and this was an ‘internal security’ issue?

The film narrative is essentially a long flashback to the events which led up to the nightmare conclusion. The first forward momentum is the ‘scrambling’ of the GIGN company and their flight from Paris to the other side of the world. When they arrive in New Caledonia they find that some local gendarmes are being held hostage by rebels but also that the French Army has arrived en masse and that any hopes of a peaceful negotiation are threatened by the gung-ho actions of the Army commanders.

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

Rebel leader Alphonse Dianou played by Iabe Lapacas

It eventually transpires that Philipe Legorjus has contacts in Paris who are linked to Mitterand while the Army share the perspective of Chirac and Legorjus will eventually find himself faced by Chirac’s own minister Bernard Pons who is sent out to manage the crisis on the ground. The narrative driver is that Legorjus himself and a small number of his team of negotiators eventually meet the rebels – who are, of course, not the ‘fanatics’ portrayed by Chirac and the right-wing. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but the gripping central narrative places Legorjus himself in an almost impossible position. He attempts to remain professional and a man of honour – but he finds himself participating in brutality. He meets his obligations to some but betrays others. There is no black and white only the murky greys of colonial repression. The central figure of the rebel leader (amazingly played by the real man’s cousin who was a post-grad student in France when Kassovitz found him) is an idealistic young man whose actions are undermined by the local nationalist leaders who are also playing political games. All of this is familiar from too many situations around the world but Kassovitz makes it all real and painful. It’s a long film, mostly talk but with some intense action sequences and an intriguing ‘score’ by the ‘industrial percussion’ group Les Tambours du Bronx. There is also some great community singing under the end credits.

Rebellion is a long film (136 minutes) and it represents a remarkable achievement by Mathieu Kassovitz. He plays the central character as a man who internalises and manages to stay cool under pressure (most of the time). As director he manages an enormous ensemble cast with some experienced French actors, but also many non-professionals. I was gripped throughout and fascinated by the depiction of events. Nobody comes out of the events themselves with much credit and by all accounts many of the leading participants have tried t claim that the film is inaccurate. This article by an Australian scholar and former diplomat with experience of New Caledonia suggests that the film does tell at least some of the ‘truth’ and also points out that Mitterand (who won the election) did attempt to develop ‘peace and reconciliation’ after signing the orders to end the hostage-taking with military force. The film was shot in French Polynesia rather than Melanesia but it was eventually shown in New Caledonia – and seemingly well-received. The final credits remind us that there will be votes in 2014 on a process leading towards possible future independence.

I’m not sure if the film will get more cinema screenings in the UK but I urge you to seek it out on DVD when it appears on September 2nd (why so long, Lionsgate?). I think I’d like to return to the film then when a few more people have seen it. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:

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: