Friday 2 March 2018

From the archive: "A Hijacking"

In his day job as one of the chief creative minds powering TV’s Borgen, Tobias Lindholm established himself as something like the Scandinavian Aaron Sorkin: a writer fascinated by procedure, negotiation, high-end talk, but coming at all these without any of the romantic allegiance to flag and office one found in The West WingSome of that fascination survived into his script for last year’s The Hunt, where beneath director Thomas Vinterberg’s errant-schoolboy cackling, you could hear somebody’s sincere interest in the cruel insinuations that might be levelled against a wrongly accused individual, and the terms in which that individual might make his defence. That voice comes through more forcefully yet in A Hijacking, Lindholm’s second film as director (after 2010’s prison saga R), which unfolds on the high seas and in the offices of a Danish shipping company.

As in The Hunt, Lindholm has turned his hand to a fiction inspired by real-life headlines, here dramatising the hijacking of a freighter by Somali pirates, and the ripples that follow from this sudden and violent rocking of the boat. Onboard, ship’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek) – introduced making shoreleave plans with his wife and young daughter over the ship’s increasingly crucial satellite phone – finds himself enlisted as a middleman between the crew and the Somalis. Yet this terse stand-off proves to be playing out on a secondary stage: the real action is back at company HQ in Copenhagen, where tight-faced CEO Peter Ludvigsen (Soren Malling, recognisable from The Killing) comes away from brokering a $15 million deal with the Japanese to learn the pirates are demanding the exact same amount for the freighter’s release.

If it becomes a sticking point as to why the company doesn’t just pay up – or even float a counter-figure that isn’t just a drop in the ocean – it equally becomes clear that, to men such as Peter, business is not a zero-profit enterprise; for all that the crew’s loved ones might tearfully emplore him to bring their boys back alive, he’s also evidently accountable to his superiors and stockholders. As the negotiation drags on – days turning to weeks, then months – patience at both ends starts to wear thin, the ship’s supplies start to run out, and the crew increasingly find themselves with more in common with their captors, who prove amenable to their demands for fresh air and toilet breaks, than they do with their recalcitrant paymasters.

The scenario’s a static one – men sitting round phones and fax machines here, at the wrong end of rifles there – and rife with obvious oppositions: the clammy, lived-in ship, as set against the sterile, inhuman corporate hub. Yet Lindholm is acutely attuned to the underlying turbulences inherent in both this story, and the wider world. His film see-saws like a coracle caught in a hurricane, tipping back and forth between the brine and the boardroom as one faction tosses the other a figure, then sits back to see whether their adversaries bite. That everybody’s on a potentially deadly fishing expedition here – trying to get something for something next to nothing – is made explicit in the mid-film sequence that finds crew and pirates uniting as one to haul in a large plaice for dinner. For all the boozy, plate-smashing bonhomie these scenes evoke, Lindholm conveys a powerful sense these characters are, in the bigger picture, mere minnows; their relationships, and the rest of their lives, will be determined by the sharks gathering at head office.

Every scene determines to get as close as it can to the reality of such a situation. The immediacy extends to the incorporation of live satellite phone delays, further complicating the conversation; to the presence of a real-life piracy expert (British-born Gary Skjoldmose Porter), here to guide us and the characters alike through the intricacies of the process; even – be warned – to a horribly realistic animal slaying that does at least chime with the cutthroat barbarism going on here. That it’s the white man holding the knife is one of several ironies through which A Hijacking makes its underlying point: that we’re all now at the mercy of our CEOs. At some point, this extraordinary wellspring of superbly rendered, supremely engaged Scandinavian drama will doubtless dry up, leaving us wondering what to do with ourselves of a Saturday evening – but not yet. Smart, critical and utterly gripping, A Hijacking arrives as the finest example of corporate-age cinema since The Social Network, care of a director who absolutely knows how to put us in the room.

(MovieMail, May 2013)

A Hijacking screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.55pm.

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