Mads Mikkelsen, he can play anything


Riders of Justice interview

Director, Anders Thomas Jensen and lead actor, Mads Mikkelsen


By © Jane Freebury

It’s quite the transformation. For his role in Riders of Justice as a flinty military officer returned from Afghanistan, Mads Mikkelsen had his head shaved and grew a bushman’s beard. With the floppy brown hair gone and the distinctive cheekbones disappeared from view, audiences will do a double take of the famous Danish actor, who certainly looks the seasoned soldier but nothing like his familiar self.

The beard was real because Mikkelsen hates fakes that get in the way and can come loose. “With that look it was easier to persuade a room that you might kill them if you look like that than if you look like a member of the Beatles, right?”

Like many films, Riders of Justice has been delayed many times. Just after a media roundtable that that I took part in early this year, interviewing Mikkelsen and the film’s director, Anders Thomas Jensen, the pandemic struck again.

On that discussion, Mikkelsen used audio only. The high cheekbones were hidden from view again, but the distinctive voice was there and the answers always considered and interesting.

Unfamiliar to his fans as the obsessive action guy who drives a Hollywood vigilante blockbuster

In Riders of Justice, Mikkelsen plays a character unfamiliar to his fans, a professional soldier Markus not entirely unlike the obsessive action guy who drives a Hollywood vigilante blockbuster. So, it was no surprise when one of the first questions from a panellist related to the film’s key theme. Why is the revenge movie such “a cinch”, such a lure for audiences? It was directed at the film’s director, Anders Thomas Jensen.

For Jensen the answer was easy. “It starts with a core feeling that everyone knows, an everyday feeling like the frustration of being held up for hours in heavy traffic that results in a feeling of grievance.” From little things, big things can grow. Getting stuck in traffic got things rolling for the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down.

Nicolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro, Lars Brygmann, and Mads Mikkelsen in Riders of Justice. Image courtesy Rialto

If Riders of Justice is a revenge movie it is also a madcap, dark comedy poking fun at the genre, offering some philosophy along the way on conspiracy theories that appear to underpin and seek to justify violent acts of revenge.

How did Jensen’s pitch work on Mikkelsen? “I just saw Markus as this macho man always knowing violence and just cracking on the inside,” the actor responds. “Like a man who tries to find logic in something in which there pretty much is none”.

Markus is in the field in Afghanistan when he hears that his wife has been killed in a train crash back home in Denmark, leaving his teenage daughter traumatised. It is a tragedy, inexplicable and senseless, for which it is impossible to find a perpetrator, but it causes Markus to martial his training and elevate his response to it to extreme levels. When a trio of hacker nerds approach him with their particular conspiracy theory accounting for the random, senseless accident, Markus leaps into action and the film leaps in turn into some hilarious comedy. Tinged with dark irony, of course.

Mad Mikkelsen and Anders Thomas Jensen first worked together on Jensen’s short film, Café Hector in the mid-1990s. Mikkelsen’s brother had a role but Mads crashed the set and got a part too. It was six years later that Mikkelsen appeared in front of international audiences in Open Hearts, the difficult story of what might seem like an inappropriate love affair. It was co-written by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen.

Director Jensen, whose screen credits are mostly in screenwriting, has directed Mikkelsen five times. He is confident that his long-time friend and collaborator has nailed it with his portrait of a conflicted military commander suddenly confronted with the death of a loved one, to which he cannot respond in his usual way.

“He can play anything, Mads.”

Granted, the actor has seemed up for anything since he began combining work in the international screen industry with the Danish film industry where he started. The many genres of movie in which he has appeared include young adult fiction like the Fantastic Beasts films and Chaos Walking, big noisy Hollywood blockbusters and a turn in a James Bond. The riveting, agonizing, intimate Danish dramas like the recent Another Round, Michael Kohlhaas, The Hunt and A Royal Affair, have continued all along.

I ask if Mikkelsen has he been pushing himself to test his limits. “No, I respond to screenplays and characters that I believe in, with directors I believe in. Like most actors I try to make a scene intimate, a situation the audience can relate to, whatever the film, Fantastic Beasts or Another Round.”

He takes the discussion back to the Riders’ difficult themes of revenge and conspiracy, adding that “if there is no meaning, we will try to find it, to find something. The human race is always fascinated with where it cannot find meaning. Perhaps because if there’s no meaning, we don’t know why we’re here.”

It may not be possible for his character Markus, as a military commander, to resolve his deep hurt and anger. I say that he seems like a man with a very limited tool set for what he has just been served.

“Absolutely,” responds Mikkelsen. “He has learned from way back, from his father, definitely from the army, that he has to be the strongest man in the room. This is his biggest strength and his biggest weakness.”

Another journo asks whether Mikkelsen was interested in the study of a masculine character who found it easier to turn into an action hero than go into therapy. She mentioned that the actor has said he is resistant to the idea of therapy.

“I see a lot of him in me. …I’m not the kind of guy who needs to talk to people about what I’m thinking about.”

Uproarious, bleak humour, the hidden smile saying something that others are thinking

Some filmgoers may find the uproarious, bleak humour in Riders of Justice unsettling. So, what is it about the Danish sense of humour, that hidden smile about something taboo, the inappropriate jokes? Is it about saying what others are thinking, but too inhibited to express?

“I think that’s right. It’s a kind of humour you may also find in, say, Scotland and Australia.”

Jensen, the director, was impacted by a real-life tragedy himself, another event that made no sense. Early in the production of Riders of Justice, his teenage daughter died in a car accident, causing the filmmaker to fall into deep depression and suffer a nervous breakdown. It was, he says, the starting point for his movie.

“You can look to alcohol, to god, to pills… When you are angry and think that revenge is a meaningful way of regaining your life. That’s why I created this Markus character, facing PTSD, forced to face a life he’d been running away from.”

When asked what makes his lead actor so special, Jensen said he’s really good at picking up on other people’s psychology, at understanding why others behave the way they do. “Mads is good at so many things. Physically amazing, he can play comedy, and he’s a team player, the perfect actor.”

Then he pulled himself short with a light laugh, declaring he “wasn’t going to say any more nice things” about his friend and collaborator.  We all know he didn’t need to, and film audiences do too.

First published in the Canberra Times on 30 October 2021. Jane’s film reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Chaos Walking


Smart and engaging, this young adult dystopian fiction is a cut above, with convincing performances and an interesting backstory of ideas

M, 109 minutes

3 Stars


Review by © Jane Freebury

It seems plausible that around 230 years from now, events may have taken the world that we know backwards as well as forwards. It’s not implausible.

There may be people hurtling around in space who were born aboard a spaceship. Who have never experienced anything but being in transit while they and their communities search for a ‘new world’.

At the same time, on terra firma, there might well be other communities who are isolated in rural regions. They have dug in deep to survive, cutting themselves off from the outside world.

Chaos Walking is based on The Knife of Never Letting Go. It is the first book of the young adult, speculative fiction trilogy by British-American author Patrick Ness that has him won prestigious awards. Ness collaborated with Christopher Ford on this screenplay.

In the film’s early scenes, the main characters, Todd (Tom Holland) and Viola (Daisy Ridley) are on a collision course. Two young people, human but from alien worlds.

Viola (Daisy Ridley), arrives out of nowhere, the survivor of a wrecked spacecraft. However, she and Todd are both descended from earth originally, from settlers who left Earth in search of a better home.

Viola’s grandparents were the last people in her family to have had contact with Earth, and everything she has ever known is pre-fabricated. She is the techo who can get a motorbike to roar back into life, and restore telecommunications. Todd is the sturdy resourceful woodsman.

Todd is helping on a farm, though something appears to stand between his gentle, clean-cut self and the other men. The men of the town, including the Mayor’s son who is resentful of his father’s interest in Todd, are distant too. Todd is an outsider.

Chaos Walking is set in a future where the post-industrial apocalypse has collided with the Wild West. It was shot in the spectacular forests of North America, that were in their day a New World too.

Within this setting of superb natural beauty lies Prestisstown, the locus of evil in Chaos Walking. It is ruled by warped religiosity, the iron fist of the mayor (Mads Mikkelsen), who is prone to whip up its vigilante posses to swarm the countryside.

It’s a town where young men are brought up to do what they want, including eating at table by spearing their food with a hunting knife. The absence of women in Prentisstown has delivered some skewed outcomes.

What happened to them, to the women like Todd’s mother? She died when he was only a few months old, and Todd has never seen a woman before Viola appears, hiding in the barn. Naturally enough, he is more than curious about the pretty girl with yellow hair whose thoughts he cannot read.

Oh yes, the men of Prentisstown can barely keep their thoughts to themselves. It is the result of a germ unleashed on them, after the war with the New World’s indigenous people that took all their women away.

The men’s thoughts are constantly heard in the air. In the film’s visual language, this concept is achieved with swirling FX that work surprisingly well.

Mastering the cacophony of sound a man produces, his ‘noise’, is in their culture the sign that manhood has been attained.

Director Doug Liman is intimately connected with the action adventure genre, in particular the Bourne series. He delivers vigour and conviction to the many chase scenes.

There are some very good actors here, like David Oyelowo and Demian Bichir, to help ease the narrative through any issues with credibility.

Ridley and Holland are both appealing young leads. Holland has been a promising young actor for some time.

We could have done without the scene where he drops his dacks and gets into a he-man wrestle with a long, large reptile. It’s on the edge of risible, but at least we didn’t see the scaly creature.

Mikkelsen, sporting two spectacular scars across his cheek and lording it over all in Prentisstown, makes a plausible villain. Not entirely evil, and with enough human traits to make him really dangerous.

Chaos Walking, neither unrelievedly dark nor horrifically violent, pitches well to its YA audience. This British American production is clearly paving the way for sequels, and why not?

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 March 2021 

*Featured image: Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley in Chaos Walking. Courtesy Lionsgate

Another Round

Is life better when we’re a little bit drunk?

M, 116 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury


Provocation is something some filmmakers like Thomas Vinterberg take to with ease and skill. The Danish writer-director has made gentle adaptations of classic Thomas Hardy novels, but he also has a knack for treating contemporary social issues in his modern dramas. Asking questions that can be confronting and make us really think.

When his film Festen appeared in 1998, it was arresting to see a story about sexual predation in a family gathered to celebrate the patriarch’s birthday. The Hunt of 2012 had the title of a vigilante western, but was about a kindergarten worker wrongly accused of child sexual molestation.

director Vinterberg likes asking confronting questions, and making us really think

It is hardly surprising when a film about a tough subject arrives with the Vinterberg tag, because he was one of the co-founders of Dogme 95.

The Danish film movement was all about filmmaking eschewing special effects and returning to the basics, concentrating on narrative and performance. It hasn’t been so hugely influential, but it’s an excellent touchstone to contrast with effects-driven cinema. And some of its most talented practitioners do make great movies.

Vinterberg is in the same company as Dogme 95 co-founder Lars von Trier who has consistently made films that unsettle, disturb and question. Some of von Trier’s confronting – some would say shocking – body of work includes films like Dogville, Breaking the Waves and Nymphomaniac.

The more sensational work by von Trier work may have overshadowed Vinterberg’s nuanced and intellectually testing films, but Vinterberg is hardly less challenging.

In Another Round, Vinterberg takes a look at drinking culture in his country. Does everyone there drink ‘like maniacs’ as someone says? Druk, ‘binge drinking’, is the title of the film in Danish.

Another Round kicks off with deliriously joyful, drunken opening scenes of young people partying by a lake to Scarlet Pleasure’s ‘What a Life’ on the soundtrack.

The partying teens are drinking as much as they possibly can, and more. On the train back into town they trick one of the ticket collectors who intervenes to turn the rowdiness down a notch, handcuffing him to a passenger rail.

The exhilarating mood comes to an abrupt halt as their teachers are introduced, in particular the four middle-aged male colleagues who are also friends outside school. Without any competition, the charismatic Mads Mikkelsen (A Royal Affair, The Hunt, and Casino Royal) comes to the fore as lead character, Martin. He teaches history.

Martin is at this point a rather indifferent teacher, one has to say. In the scenes with his wife and young sons, it is clear that he is not in a good way outside the classroom either. Stuck in mid-life doldrums, he asks his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), if he has become boring. Silly question.

Out with his teaching friends for a 40th birthday dinner, the lads, feeling flat about turning 40, hit on an idea. Why not test the hypothesis of (an actual) Norwegian philosopher and psychiatrist Finn Skarderud that human beings would benefit from always being a little bit drunk?

It’s Skarderud’s theory that the blood alcohol count we are born with is too low and that we should drink to maintain 0.05% to bring out the best in ourselves. A very seductive proposition to a group of chaps who fear their best years may be behind them.

Why not test it out? Why not take the benefits that Skarderud claims and become more relaxed, poised, musical, open and creative? Social and professional performance could only improve.

it hasn’t been just the creative geniuses in history who drank a bit

As Martin explores his more relaxed and creative self in the classroom, he shares interesting facts about significant historical figures and their alcohol use. It hasn’t been just the creative geniuses who drank a bit.

Another Round is structured as a dairy of events, with the men taking a swig on the job. Hard to believe it could go unnoticed for so long, but then there’s a point or two for the story to make as it develops.

Despite the serious topic, some gloomy interiors and the film’s dedication to Vinterberg’s elder daughter who was to have a key role as Martin’s concerned teenage daughter, Another Round ends on a high. It concludes with an exuberant dance performance, an expression of freedom, by Mikkelsen. The very talented actor started out as a gymnast and jazz ballet dancer. Surprise, surprise.

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 February 2021