Unemployed Welsh bloke Herb (Rafe Spall) wants a better life by getting himself locked up in a Danish prison (as you do). But is that really the way to change his life?
In One Way to Denmark (also simply known as Denmark) Rafe Spall plays Herb, who has had enough of his life in small-town Wales. Most of us will have found ourselves in a rut at some point, though perhaps not one that has lasted our entire adult lives. Herb is in his mid-thirties, lifelong unemployed, with a couple of grumpy friends, a mother who looks down on him, and a son who barely speaks to him. He chances upon a light news report about how pleasant life is for prisoners in Denmark, and figures that’s where he needs to be.
That description may sound daft, especially when you consider Herb has to get to Denmark (with no money) and get himself incarcerated in order to achieve his goal. But Denmark is actually both gentle and sad: gentle in the no-rush characters who populate it, and how he wrestles with feeling at home when he arrives in Denmark; and sad in… well, frankly, Wales. Herb is criticized by the job center staff, mugged by the local teenagers, insulted by his mother, and taken advantage of by neighbors; and he sees no way out except for the drastic way I’ve described.
The pace and bittersweet humor reminded me of In Bruges at times, though director Adrian Shergold (who is more well-known from British TV dramas) has made a film all of his own here. The lengthy introduction to Herb’s life is presented with patience and affection, so – even though I might have given him a shake if I was his friend – I understood him throughout, especially his mounting frustration towards the end. This must surely be partly writer Jeff Murphy’s responsibility too: he may not have many writing credits to his name to date, but what he has delivered (Hinterland, Hidden) has been excellent.
The cast is all absolutely solid, and play believable people in realistic ways. Many are already known from a mixture of TV and big screen, across the UK and Denmark: Rafe Spall, of course, is familiar from many films (from Shaun of the Dead to The Ritual) and just as many TV shows (like the recent The Salisbury Poisonings) and has shown his versatility at every step. Amongst the British cast, we also have Steve Speirs, who is a familiar face from countless titles, big (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace) and small (Inside No. 9). On the Danish side, there is Thomas W. Gabrielsson (Bron/Broen season 4) and Benedikte Hansen (Borgen). The actor who stood out to me though was the one whose face was not familiar: Simone Lykke. She played Mathilda, proprietor of the bar Herb ends up in, in the first town he arrives at in Denmark, and who makes friends with Herb. It’s not an easy role, playing a balancing act between locals and visitors; and Lykke shows Mathilda to be quite torn as the story progresses.
The use of two locations works very well in One Way to Denmark: the sense of place is firmly established in his insular home town, before showing true contrast when he arrives at his almost randomly chosen destination. It’s that contrast that enables him to look at his home life with eyes fully open… I’m not going to reveal how his decision about home works out, of course, but I found the film very interesting in the way it only took Herb’s story so far: it isn’t about the “before and after” of his life-changing adventures, but the “during”. This is where his real story was to be found.
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Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.