As exciting as it can be to be part of the audience at the first public screening of an eagerly anticipated film – the new Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick, the new Rian Johnson or David O. Russell – perhaps the purest pleasure that can be found at a film festival is that of discovery. Picking something semi-randomly from the program, with no A-listers, and no internationally-renowned filmmaker at the helm, and walking out a couple of hours later feeling that you’ve uncovered a gem, and have been the first to find a director who could be a major talent to watch.
That’s the feeling we had walking out of “A Hijacking,” a Danish-Norwegian co-production playing in the Orrizonti sidebar here in Venice. The film’s not quite from a total newcomer – helmer Tobias Lindholm co-directed the acclaimed prison flick “R” a few years ago, co-wrote “Submarino” and Cannes Best Actor winner “The Hunt” with Thomas Vinterberg, and is one of the writers on the Danish TV show “Borgen,” a political drama which has proved to be an unexpected smash hit not only at home, but also in the U.K. and elsewhere in the world (a U.S. remake is also in the works, from “Friday Night Lights”/”Parenthood” writer Jason Katims).
Even so, the film hadn’t really been on our radar at first, and it was only after failing to get into Susanne Bier’s “Love Is All You Need,” and deciding that not having seen its predecessor probably precluded us from seeing Takeshi Kitano’s gangster sequel “Outrage Beyond,” that we headed to the late-night press screening of the film. And we’re very glad we did, because the film didn’t just turn out to be a hidden jewel among the line-up, but also one of the very best pictures of the whole festival.
On the Danish cargo freighter MV Rozen in the Indian Ocean, the ship’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek, a bear of a man remarkably similar in looks and manner to Michael Shannon) is looking forward to making port in Mumbai, where he’ll quit his job for good, and fly back to his wife and daughter. But his plans are squashed when the ship is boarded by Somali pirates, and the boat and its seven-person international crew are ransomed for $25 million.
Back at home, Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling, like Asbaek a “Borgen” veteran), the CEO of the company that owns the Rozen, disregards the advice of the hostage-negotiation expert the company brought in to consult on the situation (Gary Skjoldmose Porter: not an actor, in fact, but a real-life expert in the field), and elects to talks to the pirates himself, with the task not just of freeing his men, but also doing so at a price that the company will to accept. He’s soon engaged in a back-and-forth with Omar (Abdihakin Hasar), the hostage-taker’s spokesperson, who claims to be a freelance translator rather than a pirate. But as the weeks and months drag on, the situation starts taking its toll not just on the crew, but also on those back on dry land as well.
It’s not too dissimilar in premise from Paul Greengrass’ upcoming “Captain Phillips,” which stars Tom Hanks as the captain of the Maersk-Alabama, which was taken by pirates back in 2009. Lindholm’s film isn’t based on a real-life incident, but you wouldn’t know it from the film. Meticulously researched, and adhering to absolute realism with hand-held camerawork, use of non-pro actors like Porter, and canny cross-cutting --more similar to Greengrass’ “United 93” than anything else -- means the film lands closer to a docudrama than a thriller (although we like to think that making the protagonist a ship’s cook is a nod to another nautical hijack thriller, “Under Siege.")
Indeed, Lindholm spends as much time and focus on the negotiation process as he does on the events taking place on the boat. To say that the film is an out-and-out suspense picture would be an exaggeration – there are no set pieces or action sequences. But despite the lengthy timeframe of the story, it’s still an incredibly tense experience – we’ve rarely cursed a fax machine out so much as in one crucial scene in this film. We see from early on that Peter is a canny businessman, but even he’s put to the test by the drawn out discussions involved, and Malling expertly shows the toll it’s taking on Ludvigsen without ever making him into an out-and-out hero.
Malling isn’t the only great performance in the film, though: Asbaek is titanic as Mikkel, a vivacious and gentle figure who crumbles more and more the longer he’s held captive, and the point at which the film leaves him after a shocking, gut-punch conclusion is a truly heartbreaking one. “R” star Roland Møller is also superb as Mikkel’s shipmate and best friend, while Dar Salim is excellent as Peter’s right-hand-man in the company. The hostage takers are just as good as well, showing their humanity without letting the audience forget that they’re there for business, with Hasar proving a fascinatingly ambiguous adversary/ally.
The film isn’t a white knuckle ride, and the pacing can be slow at times, but this is one of those cases where that’s sort of the point, and you certainly don’t begrudge it. "A Hijacking" is an absorbing, highly moving film that’s lingered heavily on the mind for a couple of days now. Greengrass must be feeling a little nervous about his film -- Lindholm has beaten him to the punch, and established himself as a huge talent to keep an eye on in the future in the process. [A]