11 February 2012 | robert-temple-1
Incredibly gripping, totally addictive, a TV series of absolute genius
This is a review of Seasons One and Two (20 episodes). Season Three will commence transmission on Danish Television on March 1, 2013, so we all have a long time to wait for the continued episodes. The first thing that needs to be said is that Season Two is far more powerful, intense, and dramatic than Season One in terms of the personal stories of the main characters. These become incredibly harrowing and tragic, so that this series continues to deepen and become more profound as it goes along. This series exceeds the brilliance and captivating character of both THE KILLING and MAD MEN (see my reviews), so that Danish TV drama seems to be reaching a pinnacle of such excellence one can barely conceive of anything higher than this. The performances, the direction, the ingenious, bold and confrontational scripts, the cinematography, the editing, the production values, are all so superb that criticism of them is impossible. The characters are all played with such force and fervour, such intimacy and conviction, that I fear Danish actors have surpassed the British, who until now were the best in the world. The most sensitive and wide-ranging performance is by the young Danish actor Pilou Asbaek, who plays the Prime Minister's 'spin doctor' (yes, the Danes use that English phrase). Asbaek's acting is a miracle of perfection. His range of moods, his expressiveness, his eyes, his face, his changes of voice, go far beyond anything ever imagined by Lee Strasberg, and could be described perhaps as 'hyper-Method'. Nearly at the same level of perfection as Asbaek are the stunning and brilliant performances of the two female leads, Sidse Knudsen as the Prime Minister and Birgitte Sorensen as Katrine the journalist. These three should all win International Oscars if there were any justice in the world and such awards existed. There is never one instant in the approximately 20 hours of this series when any of these three is anything other than mesmeric. They come alive as characters with such vivacity and conviction that one has to have a cold shower and calm down before facing the sad fact that one does not really know them and that they are really fictitious characters played by actors. One night my wife lay awake worrying about them, because of their personal problems. That is how it gets you! I don't believe I have ever seen a television series of this total intensity in my lifetime. What is so extraordinary is the well-rounded nature of the characters, who are seen from all sides and in all moods. This is as far from cardboard cutouts as it is possible to get on screen. The borderline between television and reality is obliterated by this magnificent series. The scripts are so clever that there is not a second's peace, one is swept along as by a raging torrent of events. The camera-work, with lots of travelling shots following frantic people as they move from one crisis to another like rabbits running from a farmer's gun, is electric. Many desperate political issues are faced head-on with the confrontational insistence which goes way beyond 'in your face' and reaches the level of 'seared into your brain'. Nothing and no one is spared. Politicians are killed, resign, are annihilated, commit suicide, are humiliated and their reputations obliterated with the rapidity and relentlessness of soldiers in the World War One trenches. In this series, politics is war to such an extent that one marvels that Denmark still exists and has not disappeared from the map of the world due to all that strife. If ever there were an advertisement for avoiding proportional representation at all costs, this series is it. This shows coalition politics from the inside with all its viciousness, betrayal, immoral compromises, back room horse-trading, duplicity, insane ambition, and ruthless destruction of people. No American or British series would have dared go this far. The Danes will seemingly stop at nothing to show a kind of hyper-reality on screen, and they have entered some kind of higher dimension of truth. This is not drama, this is war. You name a controversial political issue or international dilemma, and it is there. (For instance, there is a double episode dealing with the Sudan situation, which in the series is called North and South Karhuna.) The things which are said on screen about Greenland are astounding, and in Britain would surely have led to libel, abuse, or other legal actions for years to come. This is so no-holds-barred that the absence of any referee means everybody gets it in the eye. Sidse Knudsen rises above all this violent melée as a kind of lonely, triumphant goddess. As Prime Minister she portrays decency more convincingly than anyone since Gregory Peck. Her horribly narcissistic and loathsome husband, who abandons her out of wounded vanity, is one of the most hateful screen characters in years. He is played with despicable, self-pitying candour by Mikael Birkkjaer. Their teenage daughter, who goes to pieces mentally under the strain, is brilliantly played by the young actress Freja Riemann. The little son is touching and perfect, played with enormous, soulful eyes by child actor Emil Poulsen. Soren Malling, the police partner of Sophie Grabol in THE KILLING, brilliantly plays the TV-1 News editor. One of the most poignant performances is by Lars Knutzon as Bent Sejro, the Prime Minister's mentor. The revolting political villain Laugesen is played with such gusto by Peter Mygind that one wants to wring his neck. But the most watchable, delightful, naughty, impish, ruthless, pathetic, adorable, hateful, chameleon-like character of all is the compulsively magnetic and beautiful Birgitte Sorensen. 'Borgen' is the nickname of the Danish Parliament building (Christiansborg), just as Americans call Congress 'the Hill' and the British call Parliament 'Westminster'. This series is about courage and conviction carried to their ultimate limits, just as the production itself is drama carried to its ultimate perfection.