The Ringmaster


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Of the two halves, the first is by far the most successful."

Agnes (Anne Bergfeld) and Belinda (Karin Michelsen) work in a petrol station outside town. It’s usually busy enough but tonight, because Denmark has unexpectedly reached the finals, everybody is staying at home or joining friends to watch the game. For several hours, there will be very little traffic. A location that might ordinarily be busy at this time is dead quiet, and as the sun goes down it starts to feel very isolated.

This is the sort of situation women learn to dread when working alone. At least there are two of them, but Agnes really wants to stay in the back and work on her psychology thesis – it’s close to her deadline. At first they don’t seriously feel they’re in any kind of danger. There’s just that all-too common creepiness, those attempts to intimidate that certain men engage in when they’re bored or feel like taking out stress on a stranger. Leaning in close to read their name badges. Telling them they’re beautiful as if that constitutes some sort of responsibility. Staying too long as if just to make the point that it would be difficult to physically throw them out. Of course the police could be called, but would they take it seriously?

The really disturbing thing about behaviours like this is that one never knows what they might lead to. By the end of the night, the women will have much bigger things to worry about.

Søren Juul Petersen’s début feature as director is a film about games, the people who play them and the people who watch. It’s a film of two halves, though scenes from each intrude into the other to unsettling effect. The first half, set in the petrol station, is masterfully shot, making use of the lighting and furnishings one would expect in such a place to great effect. The second half, when we have moved to a different physical location which also exists as a virtual one, on the dark web, takes us quickly into torture porn territory. This is a game of a different kind.

Of the two halves, the first is by far the most successful. It's apparent that Petersen had less control over he second half and was also less confident working with this type of material. Whilst it delivers the gore enjoyed by a certain sort of fan (even if one scene intended to horrify is tamer than what some people do in the bedroom with full consent), it loses its stylistic edge. It also loses some of its character consistency, though this may be an issue that stems from the source material. It's hard to believe that a psychology student wouldn't recognise the techniques being used against her and at least try to take control of the situation.

Elevating this part of the film is Damon Younger as the ringmaster, a man with a truly sinister smile and a gift for showmanship. Colosseum scenes shown as an epilogue emphasise that the presentation of suffering as entertainment has been with us for a long time, and there are layers of audience here, from those shown around the edges of the ringmaster's arena to the possible presence behind security cameras at the petrol station to the viewers watching in the cinema or at home.

Finale doesn't have a lot to say that's new - indeed, that seems to be part of the point - but there's some impressive work here nonetheless and viewers will be keen to see what Petersen does next.

Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2019
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The Ringmaster packshot
Denmark has reached the finals of the European Championships and everyone is glued to their TVs. Petrol station employees Agnes and Belinda were hoping for a quiet night but they have been chosen as players in a gruesome game and no customers means no witnesses.
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Director: Søren Juul Petersen

Writer: Carsten Juul Bladt, Søren Juul Petersen, based on the novel by Steen Langstrup

Starring: Anne Bergfeld, Karin Michelsen, Damon Younger, Kristoffer Fabricius, Mads Koudal, Kim Sønderholm, Gustav Scavenius

Year: 2018

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Denmark


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