sat 02/07/2022

A War | reviews, news & interviews

A War

A War

The 'Borgen' inheritance? Danish war drama charts conflict at home and abroad

Masked man: Pilou Asbaek reconnoitres hazardous Afghan locations

Tobias Lindholm is something of a specialist in exploring the fate of enclosed groups under stress, charting how the dynamics of behaviour between men develop in crisis. I say men, though the Danish director’s name may still be better known in some quarters as a writer on Borgen, the outstanding political series set in another closely defined world where crisis followed crisis, though it's surely the female characters from there who endure more in the memory.

Lindholm has obviously kept the loyalty of the Borgen cast, most of all Pilou Asbaek, who played its conflicted spin doctor, Kasper. Asbaek has been at the centre of Lindholm’s two previous films, most notably his last one, the hostage thriller A Hijacking, and he’s back in the lead role of A War (Krigen) as Claus Pedersen, commander of a contingent of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan. The physical location with which Asbaek contends here – a landscape of mountains and desert which his troops have to patrol – may seem light years away from the deep blue sea setting of the earlier one, with its Somali pirates capturing a freighter on the Indian ocean, but both environments share a sense of pressured isolation.

There’s an understated naturalness that speaks powerfully throughout 

It’s not a pressure that bubbles over into overt drama often, however, or at least not in the way such stress tends to in other films on similar subjects made elsewhere in the world (if we merge the Afghanistan experience into the wider context of military intervention that includes Iraq, and contrast how Lindholm deals with it and how it’s been treated, say, by Hollywood, the former’s restraint stands out very clearly). In a way that's hard to pin down, the Danish director seems sometimes to be observing his characters as much as following them through their particular dramas.

Pedersen is in charge of a group of soldiers holed up in camp, from which they periodically venture out. A War opens on a note of tension when one patrol goes wrong and a soldier stumbles on an IED. There’s a frantic attempt to scramble an evacuation helicopter, but it’s too late. The death scars the company of soldiers, and it prompts Pedersen to lead more future patrols himself than his role would usually demand: one question we're aware of is whether this clearly very accomplished soldier risks losing his judgment.

Each new venture beyond their fortified walls brings different risks: operations vary between standard patrol and following up on particular information, as well as more generally interacting with, and responding to, the needs of the local population. But even a simple gesture of goodwill like helping an injured girl brings unpredictable consequences, as well as raising moral dilemmas to which there’s no easy answer. When Pedersen and his soldiers find themselves trapped in another hostile situation and with another soldier critically injured, he takes a split-second decision to bring in firepower from the air, and manages this time to get his wounded man out in time.  

The consequences of that action – whether Pedersen followed the right protocols in calling in the bombing, as a result of which 11 Afghan civilians were killed – dominate the second half of the film, as the commander faces court proceedings back home (pictured above). Lindholm skilfully balances the sense of faraway action in which all involved were caught up in the heat of events, with their cool reappraisal through a very different set of priorities.

There was something close to that in A Hijacking, where the action moved between onboard drama and decisions being made back in Copenhagen by the company boss about paying ransom. The parallel is enhanced by the fact that actor Soren Malling (another Borgen veteran: he was Friis, the editor) played that part, and returns in A War as Claus’s urbane defence lawyer.

The other thing that Lindholm achieves convincingly is a sense of how Pedersen’s family continues at home in his absence, their own daily dramas mediated through occasional telephone calls with him. Tuva Novotny as wife Maria (pictured above) doesn’t hang her emotions out for immediate inspection either, conveying a very nuanced sense of just about coping with life with the three children who are missing their father, each in a different way.

There’s an understated naturalness that speaks powerfully throughout, both from the leads and from the supporting cast, the majority of whom are non-professionals. Lindholm continues his past practice in drawing on people who have real-life experience of the contexts concerned: thus, the Danish soldiers in the film have combat experience behind them, while the Afghan villagers and Taliban fighters come out of just such worlds (those episodes were filmed in Turkey, however). If you didn’t know that detail, it probably wouldn’t colour your perception of the film, but when you do it brings an extra quasi-documentary element to A War. At the very least, it somehow amplifies the resonance of the naturalistic drama that is Lindholm’s forte.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for A War


Even a simple gesture of goodwill like helping an injured girl brings unpredictable consequences - as well as raising moral dilemmas to which there’s no easy answer


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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