Film review: A War

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Directed by Tobias Lindholm, this engaging, emotionally complex Danish drama stars Borgen’s Pilou Asbaek as Claus Pedersen, a military commander stationed in Afghanistan, who’s struggling to maintain morale among his troops following the death of a 21 year-old soldier in a landmine incident.

Meanwhile, back home in Denmark, his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) has her own problems looking after their three young children: eldest daughter Finghe (Elise Sondergaard), youngest brother Elliot (Andreas Buch Borgwardt), and middle brother Julius (Adam Chessa), who’s been acting up at school in his father’s absence.

However, Claus’ situation changes after a decision he makes on the battlefield while under heavy fire has terrible consequences. Called home to Denmark to face charges, Claus is reunited with Maria and the children, but if he’s found guilty, he could be facing prison.

Asbaek is excellent as Claus, a compassionate man who’s prepared to lead by example, even if, as his loyal friend and fellow soldier Najib (Dar Salim) points out, he might be over-stretching himself in the process. Novotny is equally good as Maria, finding her own steely reserves of strength under pressure, and Lindholm draws impressive performances from the three child actors, while there’s strong support from Danish film and TV regular Soren Malling as Claus’ lawyer, whose seeming inability to control his facial reactions results in some subtle moments of humour.

As with his previous feature A Hijacking (which also starred Asbaek, alongside co-stars Salim and Malling), Lindholm directs in a strikingly naturalistic, stripped-down style, with both the Afghanistan sequences and the domestic scenes unfolding in documentary-like fashion.

To that end, the script studiously avoids melodrama, and Lindholm makes frequent, interesting use of silence, either directly, in scenes between the actors, or as a directorial choice, such as in one key sequence where Claus tells Maria the reason he’s been sent home, but the camera is placed outside a window, so we don’t hear the dialogue and only see her reaction.

This deliberate absence of audience manipulation comes into its own in the courtroom scenes, as we already know that, as far as the law is concerned, Claus is guilty as charged, yet we also know the circumstances in which Claus made his decision, as well as the damage that a prison sentence would do to his family.

This results in a complex emotional response for the viewer, instead of the usual set-up where you’re actively rooting for the hero to get off, and the third act does a fascinating job of setting up a series of compelling contrasts along the lines of morality, integrity, family obligation, loyalty and so on.

In addition, the film is further heightened by some impressive sound design work, particularly during the combat sequences, which are shot with a convincing sense of chaos, courtesy of Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s cinematography.