As DVD box sets and online streaming slowly replace broadcast TV as primary delivery systems for televised drama, industry people have begun to cast about for the next great thing to fill middle-class evenings. After the Golden Age of American TV came the discovery of gritty French crime dramas such as the magnificent Spiral, the abortive popularisation of Italian dramas such as Inspector Montalban and the increasingly potent and influential Nordic gold rush including The Killing, The Bridge and Those Who Kill. Less showy but more substantial than many of these post-Wire police procedurals is Adam Price’s Borgen, a political drama about the first female Danish Prime Minister that eschews the infantile patriotic sentimentality of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing in favour of real political engagement with Denmark’s many social and political problems. Given the success of Borgen and ‘Nordic Noir’, it is hardly surprising that the Danish film industry should attempt to use the visibility of Danish TV to help promote their national cinema. Aside from being written and directed by one of Borgen’s writers, Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking (Kapringen) is so filled with Borgen cast members that I suspect Lindholm may have driven up to the set in a large van and kidnapped them using promises of gravlax and crispbread.
The film is split between two very different locales; The cool, crisp and clean offices of a Danish shipping company and the hot, dirty and sweaty cabins of a Danish merchant ship off the coast of Mombasa. The offices are manned by the company’s smart but arrogant CEO Peter (Søren Malling) and his much smarter but much quieter junior Lars (Dar Salim). The container ship features a large international crew but the focus remains on the cheerful cook and father Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk). Having established all of the characters and their respective skills, the film has the container ship hijacked by a gang of Somali pirates and their translator Omar (Abdihakin Asgar). When the pirates demand a vast sum of money for the release of the ship and crew, Peter goes against the advice of a hijacking expert and decides to conduct the negotiations himself. Marketed as a thriller, much of A Hijacking’s tension comes from the need for both sides to respect the negotiation process, stick by the rules of the game and keep talking even when their fear and frustration threatens to get the better of them.
The nice thing about A Hijacking is that while it features a bunch of (largely nameless) people of colour with machineguns threatening the commercial interests of white people, the film contains no SEAL teams, no explosions, and no angry fathers exacting bloody revenge. It does contain a father in a vest but the only weapon he has at his disposal is an ability to make coffee and look a bit sad. In other words, this is a film in which conflict is resolved through peaceful discussion and while people do occasionally get angry and give in to their darker impulses, each of these flashes of anger is presented as a serious failure that speaks ill of the person succumbing to it. Indeed, A Hijacking is arguably one of the most emotionally muted films in recent memory as, to paraphrase Luke Skywalker, if a reconstructed melodrama like Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is the bright centre of the universe, A Hijacking is the furthest point from. This sense of intense emotional control is most evident in an absolutely beautiful scene where the shipping company CEO loses his temper causing something terrible to happen on the ship. When the line to the hijackers goes dead, the CEO’s employees are so acutely embarrassed that they just sit there in silence staring at the floor.
The great French filmmaker Georges Franju once commented that there is no more pure a source of cinematic tension than a car park containing no cars. The reason for this is that, if you stick a car park on the screen, audiences will expect a car to pull into it and so the longer you hold off satisfying this expectation, the more tension audiences will feel. Though amusingly mundane, this example demonstrates the psychological processes at work in all thrillers: Present the audience with two things that they know cannot co-exist and then step-away from the objects and watch as the audience become more and more agitated by their continued co-existence. We see this in horror movies when a murderer seems poised to discover the young man hiding in a cupboard and we see this in A Hijacking when a CEO who desperately wants to get his crew back safely is forced to hang-up the phone mid-negotiation. Indeed, the tension at the heart of A Hijacking is that while pirates, sailors and businesspeople-alike understand that they need to keep negotiating hard until a deal is made, they all want to finish the negotiation as quickly as possible. If only both sides could speak honestly with each other then surely a deal could be made… but everyone knows that this is not how the system works and the only way to resolve the situation peacefully is to remain calm and wait for the other side to give-in at a price point that is both practical for the company and believable for the hijackers. In essence, A Hijacking is that rarest of cinematic beasts; a liberal and emotionally mature thriller. However, as much as I adore the audacity of constructing a thriller around this worldview, I am forced to lament the fact that A Hijacking is not nearly as technically accomplished as it could have been and that this failure is entirely down to the underpowered script and sloppy direction of Thomas Lindholm.
In order to transform a one-sentence elevator pitch into something resembling a ninety-minute feature, filmmakers are obliged to take the core concept behind their thriller and find a host of different ways in which to approach it. Indeed, it’s not just that the aliens might kill Ellen Ripley, it’s that Ripley has to survive a number of confrontations with different types of alien in different types of situation. Sometimes she’s well armed, sometimes she’s asleep in bed, sometimes it’s a Facehugger, and sometimes it’s an entire army of Xenomorphs. Sometimes it’s not even Ripley who is in danger but someone that Ripley cares about; each of these confrontations is different and yet each one derives its emotional potency from the same source of tension, namely that we want Ripley to survive and yet she is constantly surrounded by incredibly deadly alien killing-machines. Lindholm approaches the tension between emotional honesty and bureaucratic necessity by showing us the pressure the system places on its individual human components thus we not only see the CEO wanting to conclude negotiations but also the CEO being put under pressure to reach a deal by his board, by his wife and by the members of his crew. Similarly, Lindholm shows us how much the cook wants to return home to his family and uses this intense longing to place real pressure on the need to remain calm and keep negotiating. In keeping with the film’s emotional restraint, the cook makes a teary call to his wife in an effort to bring more pressure to bear on the CEO but when the cook’s wife expresses joy or fear, the cook gently hushes her… there are times for real emotion and this is not one of them. While Lindholm’s instincts are sound, his failure to put much effort into developing his characters means that A Hijacking never quite escapes from the mechanical call-and-response required by the mechanics of genre. For example, consider great cinematic thrillers such as like Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct or Claude Chabrol’s The Cry of the Owl and you will note that the tension flows not from such generic concerns as the detective’s need to arrest the killer or the isolated woman’s need to escape from the unwanted observation of a stalker but from the complex and often conflicted personalities of the characters. By failing to grant any of his characters real depth, Lindholm ensures that his film feels more mechanical and cynical than it does intelligent and humane. Equally problematic is the way that Lindholm shoots many of the film’s tenser moments.
A Hijacking poses something of an unusual acting challenge as while the film may be Danish and include an international cast, much of the conflict-ridden dialogue takes place in English. What this means is that as well as having to bear in mind their character’s motivations and the correct way to interpret a particular line, the cast of A Hijacking are forced to worry about getting the English pronunciation right. Indeed, while Søren Malling and Pilou Asbæk are awesome in Borgen as a brittle newsman and a desperately flawed press secretary, A Hijacking finds them uncharacteristically flat and one-note. Also intensely problematic is Lindholm’s tendency to position the camera at the wrong end of any particularly emotional conversation meaning that we never see the cook break down, we never see the translator wrestling with his conscience and we never see the face of the CEO when he receives a call from the cook’s distraught wife. Though certainly in keeping with the film’s emotional restraint, this refusal to connect with the humanity of the characters not only undermines the film’s climactic moments, it also drains a lot of the tension and drama from the story as a whole. Seemingly aware of this problem, Lindhom tries to inject some humanity into proceedings but rather than spreading the emotional surplus evenly across all three major characters, he effectively dumps everything onto the cook meaning that Pilou Asbæk is forced to spend much of the film weeping for his family and begging for his life, effectively transforming him from a well-rounded and humane character into a plot device which the other characters are forced to work around. This decision to turn the cook into the emotional heart of the film also undermines A Hijacking’s wider point about the universality of dark impulses and the need for everyone to master these impulses in order to reach a peaceful and mutually beneficial solution without drone-strikes, SEAL Teams or the need for anyone to say ‘Let’s Roll’.