Whatever your very own personal take on the whole concept of travel in the pandemic/lockdown era, you will probably agree film is one of the safest and most rewarding ways to see the sights, out and about, out of yourself when you’re sick of your stinky boots. One of my favourite destinations in cinema year 2021 was Denmark, where it’s a Mads Mads Mads Mads world.
Superior screen performers possess a certain technical excellence, a sharply detailed control of their craft and an emotional intelligence to help them identify and capture vital authenticity (or at least what masquerades as authenticity). Late, great film writer Philip French said fine actors “can explore and reveal aspects of the human condition, while bringing the writing to life … simultaneously interrogating us and examining themselves.”
Which brings us back to Denmark, and Mads Mikkelsen. There’s something reptilian about the sibilantly-named Mikkelsen. He can have a sinister, hooded-eye look to him – “sleekit” is a word that comes to mind, as in “sly” or “sneaky”. He’s also lean and hip, a bit like Christopher Walken (and, like Walken, he was previously a dancer).
Mikkelsen first came on the radar in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher (1996), Bleeder (1999), and Pusher II (2004), and he was suitably intense as an existential killer-antihero in the same director’s totally mad Viking mini-epic Valhalla Rising (2009). He was a memorable Bond villain, and a fine young cannibal. Yet despite an air of menace he also boasts an Everyman quality that served him well in the likes of Thomas Vinterberg’s astute and award-winning The Hunt (2012).
In Another Round (dir. Vinterberg) and Riders Of Justice (Anders Thomas Jensen, maker of 2015’s Men & Chicken, has made five Mads films in all), Mikkelsen is two very different people – they look different, stand and walk differently, smoke and drink differently, and turn their heads – when they have to, ever so slightly – differently. Different people.
US actors, it seems to me, can go on hot “streaks,” then inevitably gravitate towards inferior fare. Consider the likes of Pacino or De Niro. They enjoy a series of big-time, CV-boosting performances followed by a Devil’s Advocate or a Fockers. European actors, on the other hand, seem to be granted time to mature and evolve into a career – given time to become consummate exponents of the art. Yes, I concede that’s an over-generalisation, and even if I were to hold up Mikkelsen as a “perfect” European example, you would remind me he has popped up in some “inferior” fare. And don’t think I don’t know the flip side of that coin, and how to properly respect Al and Bobby. There’s just something different about Mikkelsen – something studied, something expert, something still developing – mature and measured, precise yet versatile.1
Another Round (2020) starts out as a gimmicky, concept-y thing – teachers boost their blood alcohol level and then try to maintain it as part of a mischievous, somewhat desperate, seeking-the-spice-of-life exercise. But then, almost magically and profoundly, the picture transcends the gimmick. It becomes a film about love and loss, about singing the song of your country in the dark, everyone in the choir holding hands. A film about friendship and promises, mistakes and tragedies. A film about life – you know, LIFE? That often fickle if wonderfully photogenic mistress.
Mikkelsen delivers in some heart-breaking scenes, not least when his troubled Martin attempts a reconciliation with his estranged wife. Most heart-breaking of all is when his sons almost matter-of-factly say they always knew dad had been drunk – of course they did, they always do. But the film is, at times, a laugh riot and goes out on a euphoric high – if you’d told me in the early running quite how it would end I would not have believed you, but Vinterberg pulls it off – thanks to Mikkelsen’s complete emotional connection to the material, not to mention his physical dedication to what is required as his reach only slightly exceeds his grasp and he goes for it all then heroically goes again.
In Riders of Justice (2020), Mikkelsen is Markus, a military man called up on a dangerous mission – like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in Ford’s Western classic The Searchers (Ethan and Markus would recognise each other as sons of thunder). British indie filmmaker Alex Cox wrote about his visit to a screening of The Searchers (1956) in the location where much of it was shot: Monument Valley. Reflecting on the ambiguity of the central character, the organisers of the screening commissioned two posters detailing Ethan’s characteristics. One poster said: “Soldier, Lover, Uncle … Hero” and the other said: “Bigot, Racist, Killer … Hero.” It seems, then, he could be all things to all men – like great actors?
Riders of Justice offers us another peek into modern-day Danish society but through an even more fractured prism than Another Round. There is much dark humour and machine-gun mayhem in this tale of ruthless terrorists, bumbling statisticians and geeky psychologists. The less you know the better – there are twists and turns along the way. Suffice to say Mikkelsen is superb and absolutely committed as the too-tightly-wrapped, simmering pressure-cooker father who has lost his wife and lost touch with his daughter. He also churns out a man versus unforgiving bathroom fixtures and fittings scene that, for soul-baring intensity, rivals (perhaps even surpasses) Nic Cage versus Vodka in Panos’ Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018).
What’s that? They’re calling me to the gate now. I must find my passport, must depart – back to Denmark, perhaps with Von Trier, or Dreyer? Refn? Bier? No, it must be Dreyer. I’m still travelling, with miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep. Time for another round …More 2021 movie highlights:
Bill & Ted Face The Music (2021): A truly bodacious sequel, against all the odds. Bill and Ted still rock!
A Kung Fu triple bill: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Come Drink with Me (1966), Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984). I had always wanted to see them – mythic, heroic, awesome.
Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992): I have to watch it every year, at least once. I just have to!
The Many Saints of Newark (2021): Seriously good mob fare. Somehow either under-appreciated or downplayed by many Sopranos fans, critics and commentators, this was a beautifully-made time-capsule picture with an epic, eclectic soundtrack and an unforgettable performance by Alessandro Nivola.
Annette (2021): Bonkers or brilliant? Both! Sparks flew. Adam Driver was also mightily impressive in Ridley Scott’s uneven but often fascinating The Last Duel, and wonderfully equine in the Burberry ad. House of Gucci? I can’t say.
The French Dispatch (2021): Wes Anderson turned the Wes up to 11 – beyond breaking point for some, but I’m now braced and ready for 12. (As a footnote, Owen Wilson’s character name in Dispatch, “Sazerac”, is also the cocktail that takes the teachers in Another Round to “ignition point”).
1Movie blogger Jeff Wells, of Hollywood Elsewhere, is a believer in actors and directors having “streaks” – “James Cagney between The Public Enemy and White Heat – call it 20 (years),” he says. “John Ford enjoyed 27 good years – ’35 (The Informer) to ’62 (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).” Cary Grant “peaked from the late ’30s to the late ’50s.” But it can be complicated, Jeff. Try applying the theory to Clint Eastwood …or Kubrick? Interesting idea, though. And you can have more than one streak, of course – Brando had The Men to On the Waterfront (’50 to ’54) then a ’70s “moment” with The Godfather and Last Tango.