Eye For Film >> Movies >> Denmark (2019) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
We’ve all see the news reports or at least the newspaper headlines – the stories that claim that life in prison is so good that anyone might be tempted to take up a life of crime. It’s certainly not true in most parts of the world but when Herb (Rafe Spall) sees a report about prison life in Denmark he is so envious, living in his shitty little basement flat in a small Welsh town with neighbours who play loud techno all night, and getting bullied by Job Centre staff every day because he can’t get a job in an area where there are none, that he resolves he’s going to do something about it. He’s going to get to Denmark and he’s going to get himself arrested because there has to be a way of living that’s better than the one he knows.
Though on the surface of it this might sound like a particularly tasteless attempt at wacky comedy, in reality it’s something much more sophisticated. Writer Jeff Murphy and director Adrian Shergold use the comedic pretext to explore themes around mental illness and the damage done to people in poverty by a system obsessed with meting out punishment. Herb’s experience in Denmark is not what he expects and nothing really goes to plan. Perhaps, starting out where he did, it was impossible for him to form an effective plan. He simply couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of finding himself in a culture where the response to people screwing up is kindness.
Murphy’s script allows Herb a somewhat unreasonable degree of luck in order to keep the story moving along within a tight timeframe. After getting himself smuggled himself across the sea (it isn’t specified but poor people often don’t have passports), he stumbles into a bar where the locals include a Tom Jones fan who thinks Welsh people are the best thing ever and bartender Mathilde (Simone Lykke), who takes a shine to him. When he leaves that evening he meets a wiry grey Irish wolfhound (dogs appear throughout the film and his local pub back home is called The Wiry Whippet) who doesn’t seem to have an owner and promptly adopts him. These various characters will help to guide him through the next few days as he experiences initial euphoria followed by panic, with time running out and the idea of either following through on his plan coming to seem less and less viable.
On the surface, Denmark is a light and fluffy romcom full of hope and possibility. Underneath it’s much darker. Herb, who has recently been beaten by muggers angry because he had no money and his phone was hit, is carrying some serious damage. Spending time with single mother Mathilde and her young daughter makes him ache for the bond he once had with his son, who left along with his mother and now has no interest in talking to a man he considers to be a loser. The film explores the impact on him of being hated by strangers who don’t even know him because he’s unemployed, and we’ve seen enough of his friends at the start of the film to appreciate the wider relevance of this. Now he has a fake gun in his possession and something to lose, and there’s no knowing how much trouble he could get himself in.
Spall is excellent in this complicated role and there’s plenty of deadpan humour in the script to keep it entertaining even during his moments of despair. Lykke handles her role well also, holding back so as to keep Herb centre stage but still managing to flesh out her character and give her some complexity of her own. The detailed production design and careful lighting choices build effective contrasts between their two worlds and serve as a metaphor for their different social contexts, creating the sense that in Denmark there is much more room to breathe.
There’s plenty of sweetness here to appeal to the casual viewer, but underneath it lies the question: if prison seems better than life on the outside, why are we led to conclude that we should make prisons worse instead of striving to make people’s lives better?Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2020