Category Archives: Denmark

To verdener (Worlds Apart) (2008)

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

Screenplay: Steen Bille, Niels Arden Oplev

If you happen to be a fan of author Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy and the subsequent films it spawned, then you’ll know Danish director Niels Arden Oplev as the man behind Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).  One year prior to that film, Oplev co-wrote and directed To verdener, a film that was modestly fêted on the festival circuit in its native Denmark, as well as surprising the box office with over 300,000 tickets sold.

The film tells the true story of Sara (Rosaline Mynster), a 17-year-old girl living in a devout Jehovah’s Witness family.  When Sara’s dabbling in things forbidden by her religion leads to a romance with 23-year-old atheist Teis (Johan Philip Asbæk), her faith as well as her ties to her family are tested.  Throughout the film, Sara continues to walk a fine line between being on the verge of banishment from the faith by the elders as well as her family, and forgiveness.

To verdener commences with Sara’s mother Karen (Sarah Boberg) and father Andreas (Jens Jørn Spottag) announcing to their three children that Andreas has commit a sin against Jehovah and the family.  Though it isn’t specifically stated what that sin is, it’s evident that Andreas has had an extra-marital affair.  Both Karen and Andreas tell their children that the decision as to which parent must now leave the household is entirely up to them.  Sara is quick to point out that forgiveness is a necessary virtue and because Karen refuses to forgive Andreas, it should be Karen who leaves.  Though shocked by this decision, Karen obliges her children’s wishes and moves out.  This sole action sets up much of what sort of person Sara is, foreshadowing her own attempts at finding understanding and forgiveness amongst her family and church.

From this point onward, as much as I hate to say it, To verdener felt increasingly like a Movie of the Week – a European Movie of the Week, mind you – but a Movie of the Week none the less.  This I can surmise is due in large part to the actual thinness of the plot and the lack of any particular momentum of the film itself.  For starters, Sara’s great love affair with Teis is little more than a tool to ignite Sara’s moral dilemma.  He’s 23-years-old and at no point is there any indication exactly why he so quickly falls in love so hard with Sara.  The entire reason as to what attracts a 23-year-old Danish musician and atheist to a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness is severely lacking.  Sara is the centre piece of this film and for this reason, Oplev chose to place every last drop of the film’s energy into proving to the audience that she has one big decision to make.  Which of course, she does.  Still, that shouldn’t mean that the rest of the cast should be relegated to mere set pieces.

There were also too many unanswered questions, such as why Sara’s mother seemed to only slightly obey the strict laws of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and still remain perfectly accepted within the group.  I’m also confused as to why on the first night where Sara sleeps at Teis’ apartment after missing the last train home, that she didn’t simply take a taxi or even walk.  Yes, at heart she was not fully supportive of the church’s vows and laws, but at the time when she misses her train, we are lead to believe that she really did not want to spend the night at Teis’ apartment.

In general, it seemed that To verdener had little room to go after it established that Sara would struggle to find a balance between her faith and her life.  This struggle, while potentially capable of powering a strongly made drama, fizzles and becomes repetitive rather quickly under Oplev’s command.  The ending comes as no surprise, further strengthening the film’s inability to shake off the melodramatic weight of a Movie of the Week.

-Mike

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Frygtelig lykkelig (Terribly Happy) (2008)

Director: Henrik Ruben Genz

Screenplay: Henrik Ruben Genz

Normally I’m someone who hates the idea of watching a foreign film only to automatically compare it to something similar from Hollywood.  More often than not there’s no reason to do it – it’s little more than cramming filmmaking into a narrow spectrum in which the film is either familiar to our Hollywood sensibilities and therefore good, or isn’t, in which case it’s unjustly relegated to little more than “that arty stuff they make in Europe”.

This time however, I can’t resist.  I’m sorry.  It’s just that Danish filmmaker Henrik Ruben Genz has so aptly channeled the feel and look of the Coen brother’s Blood Simple with his latest film Frygtelig lykkelig, that I would be foolish not to mention it.  Besides, there are far worse things for a filmmaker than to be compared to the Coen brothers.

Frygtelig lykkelig follows Jakob Cedergren (Robert Hansen), a Copenhagen cop who has just been demoted to working as the marshall in a tiny, remote Danish town.  It’s apparent right from the start that Jakob’s gone overboard in some capacity and is now grimly facing banishment from his life in Copenhagen.  The town he finds himself stationed in is an odd one, with its methodical and routine driven inhabitants giving off subtle hints of  expectation toward Jakob’s place as marshall.

Jakob quickly becomes friendly with Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), the sad wife of abusive drunkard and all around town bad-ass, Jørgen (Kim Bodnia).  Jørgen Buhl, with his cowboy hat, beer belly and bad reputation is as Coen of a character as they come, and his presence in the first two acts of the film help to slowly unroll a sticky and dark little tale of comeuppance, justice and misguided passion.  There’s an unspoken code of ethics in this muddy little town and all problems can ostensibly be solved by a trip to the local bog.

If all of this sounds more than a little odd to you, that’s because it is.  In fact, it’s exactly this ability to sustain the oddities of the film, while steering them clear from weird for the sake of being weird, that Genz handles so well.  There’s a creeping notion hanging over the film’s first two acts that things are not what they seem and that before all is said and done, the audience will be privy to both the town and Jakob’s darkest secrets.

Unfortunately, the film’s final act loses the momentum that the previous acts held, either by leaving questions unanswered or by providing answers that don’t match the initial corresponding levels of build up.  And that’s a problem.

Still, the isolation of the town as seen through cinematographer Jørgen Johansson’s lense is splendid in its understated beauty and the entire cast maintains the film’s well orchestrated feel for a place where strange happenings are so regular, that they’ve ceased to be regarded as strange.  As a whole, Frygtelig lykkelig captures great levels of tension in minimal surroundings, just as Blood Simple did more than two decades before.  But for its part, Frygtelig lykkelig just doesn’t satisfy on enough levels to live up to the excitement it produces in its first hour.

-mike

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