For a country with a population of under six million, Denmark consistently produces a high volume of amazing drama. In recent years it’s gained its reputation via its TV shows. Series like The Killing, The Bridge and The Legacy, to name a few, regularly outperform their pedestrian-by-comparison British TV counterparts in terms of their sheer originality and quality of film-making.
Of course, Denmark has long possessed a proud feature film history too, perhaps most famously in recent memory through the Dogma 95 Collective dominated by Lars Von Trier in the 1990s.
While it boasts some impressively shot (and, at times, harrowing), battle sequences, A War (Krigen in Danish) is a film the Dogma 95 Collective would be proud of in terms of its tight script, sharply-defined storytelling and reliance on faultless performances from its actors.
Written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards, A War looks at the conflict in Afghanistan through the eyes of Commander Claus Pedersen (the superb Pilou Asbaek) and his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny).
Claus and his Company are stationed in Helmand Province, fighting the Taliban while trying to protect and win over the local civilians. Back home in Denmark Maria is struggling with the daily grind of raising their three young children on her own, whilst having to simultaneously deal with the constant anxiety caused by her loved one being in a dangerous war zone thousands of miles away. A War captures this reality of the military wife beautifully, due in no small part to the excellent Novotny.
While it’s not the first to do so by any means, A War also does a superb job of capturing the numerous tensions of war – of cautiously patrolling an area filled with hidden landlines, the terror of walking into an unknown settlement without knowing who’s there, the fact you can never be certain if someone is friend or foe. The first half of the film is tense, edge-of-your-seat stuff - not necessarily enjoyable viewing, but never anything less than gripping.
About halfway through, the film suddenly totally changes tone after the actions of the Company are implicated in the deaths of innocent civilians. The second half essentially becomes a courtroom drama to determine whether or not a war crime has been committed.
As with all the best films, you are never certain of the final outcome – meaning the second half remains tense in an altogether different way. The highly intelligent script challenges the viewer to act as jury, leading you to question how you would judge someone within the context of a hellish world of blurred boundaries. It also explores the concept of how split-second decisions, even those made with the best intentions, can sometimes create devastating consequences that last a lifetime.
A War is a sobering, thought-provoking film that underlines the fact that even those lucky enough to return home from war zones alive and able-bodied are mentally wounded for life. Again, this isn’t a new or original message, but A War gets it across in a powerful way. Highly recommended.