Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 7:02 pm 
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(San Francisco Film Festival showing May 25, 2005)

A fast-paced political thriller with time for subtlety.

Brace yourself for a little snow flurry of Danish names. In this breathless Danish political thriller, Democratic party leader Aksel Bruun (Jesper Langberg) is involved in a serious car accident right at the end of a major political campaign. While he's in intensive care and may be dying Democratic functionaries and rival leaders meet around a big table and argue over strategy. Meanwhile a young journalist named UlrikTorp (Anders Berthelsen, a Peter Sarsgaard type) whose father, Gunnar (Ulf Pilgaard) was once a leading liberal politician, is suddenly assigned to parliament. Perhaps it's because his family background gives him good connections there; but when a scandal involving one of the Democratic party leader's rivals falls into Torp's hands and he gets a front page story out of it, he begins to suspect he may be only a pawn in a party power struggle. But he refuses to cooperate. . .

Kongekabale (it sounds more like a cabal than a game but it's both) has some of the moral excitement of the 1989 Alistair Reed/Simon Moore UK miniseries Traffik as well as its sense of inexorable forces working fast, but director Arcel, adapting the identically titled bestseller by Niels Krause-Kjær, has cleverly condensed a lot of material into only an hour and forty-three minutes by focusing on Torp's struggle to throw a monkey wrench into the Machiavellian schemes of the powerful Drier (a steely Søren Pilmark). (I'm guessing the strong actress who plays one of Drier's chief obstacles, Lone Kjeldsen -- Nastja Arcel -- is the director's wife.)

This involves many details we can't reveal, but suffice it to say that as in Traffik there's a sense of upright people striving desperately to make a difference while the odds keep threatening to tip toward the bad guys. But "Bad guys" is a simplification King's Game is too smart to make. Though situations are heightened beyond what may have happened in actual recent Danish politics and characters have been simplified to fit their functions on the chess board, there's also a good sense of the complexities of political alliances in a country where everybody knows everybody else and often went to the same schools.

The film begins with a long shot at night of a low sectioned building with people coming out. Soon we're into a lot of close-ups, but that opening shot is a metaphor for the web of dark conceit that is to unfold. The cinematography isn't overtly fancy but workmanlike, almost gray -- grainy, like news photos, or surveillance telephotos -- but it subtly swings from an epic scale to an intimate one, and the editing is neat, sweeping us forward with little surprise links and maintaining an intense but never rushed pace. This may be a conventional piece, a "potboiler," if you like, but it's smart stuff and above all compulsively watchable. When Torp links up with the more experienced, but equally idealistic Henrik Moll (Nicholas Bro), they're no Woodward and Bernstein but more like loose canon private dicks. Moll has a greasy, go-for-broke quality that recalls Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his prime, and their Laurel and Hardy action is headlong and astonishing. Journalism as spin doctoring and TV and commercialism as human manipulation are constant themes (even Torp's little daughter is a pawn to that), but the underlying theme is the age-old one of politics as power play, and it's nicely delineated. This was Denmark's top grosser and big award winner last year. Arcel's debut feature is a crowd-pleaser but it never seems slick or commercial.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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