Above the Street, Below the Water (Over gaden under vandet)

Denmark (2009) Dir. Charlotte Sieling

The seemingly happy marriage of Anne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Ask (Nicolas Bro) comes to an end when Ask tires of holding the fort while actress Anne is constantly away. At a marriage counselling session Ask announces that he needs a break from Anne, which she assumes means he has another woman, which he does, theatre critic Bente (Ellen Hillingsø). All of this takes place on the same day Anne is preparing for her opening night as Ophelia in Hamlet.

Anne and Ask’s marriage isn’t the only one under the spotlight in his debut film from acclaimed Danish TV director Charlotte Sieling, who has helmed episodes of The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge, which features a number of recognisable faces to anyone who has indulged in the onslaught of excellent Nordic Noir TV series over the past couple of years here in the UK.

In what could be described as “The sex lives of the Danish middle class”, a number of relationships are examined, all intertwined through the various players connections with one another from the tenuous to the familiar.

Bente’s own marriage is down the pan and husband Bjørn (Anders W. Berthelsen) lives on a houseboat which is currently moored on the river outside of the apartment of Anne’s philandering producer Carl (Nils Ole Oftebro) and his wife Charlotte (Ellen Nyman), who is the marriage counsellor for Anne and Ask, and with whom Bjørn seems to strike up an unusual friendship with.

Hold on there’s more: Anne and Ask’s youngest child, son Anton (Emil Poulsen), goes to school with Bente and Bjørn’s youngest, daughter Asta (Anna Eline Levin) while her elder brother Gustav (Mads Duelund), who resents his father for leaving, has the hots for Anne and Ask’s daughter Irina (Lea Høyer), who is hiding her pregnancy to Gustav’s best mate and co-worker Fadi (Mohammed Al-Bakier) from her parents. Phew!

What most TV soap operas cram into a year, Sieling has managed to fit into 85 minutes and does so without any sense of anything being left out or unresolved to the point of frustration to the viewer. The threads are many and the story sounds more convoluted that it actually is, such is the masterful way Sieling brings it all together on the opening night of Hamlet, the build up to which is just as fraught backstage as it is way from it.

The strength of the characters is that despite their high flying occupation they are all relatively normal people and thus their (self inflicted) problems are relatable to the viewer – not that I’m suggesting the audience are as promiscuous and adulterous as the character are!

Amazingly this isn’t a film filled with endless scenes of melodramatic screaming or gut wrenching emotional breakdowns – much the negative effects of the various relationships manifest themselves in an intense suppressing of the emotions which are then released during sex.

The only ones who seem to have their heads screwed on are the youngsters, who are determined not to let the poor example set by their parents effect their own moral compass. Sieling also manages to inject some comedy into the proceedings, saving most of it for the climactic opening night in which everyone is invited and everything comes to a head.  

Much like in her role as everyone’s favourite politician, Danish prime minister Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen, Sidse Babett Knudsen plays another woman torn between her job and her career, only here Anne doesn’t have the same composure and grace that Birgitte does. There are no diva strops from Anne (not really) but the pressure of dealing with keeping the promise to pick up Anton from school while wondering who the woman was she saw get in Ask’s car sees someone suffer the eventual explosion, and it happens to be the dressing staff at the theatre.

It is here that any similarity between Anne and Birgitte ends and allows Knudsen to show us more of what made her a household name in her native Denmark (although this role precedes Borgen by a year) with some wonderfully nuanced moments of intensity and melancholy when the fallout of Ask’s announcement begins to take effect.

Despite being the nominal star – even more so in light of her current high profile in Borgen – this isn’t just Sidse Babett Knudsen’s film, it is very much an ensemble piece and thanks to the other Danish TV shows, this feels even more like a congregation of a top flight cast. If some the other cast members’ names aren’t overly familiar then their faces will be.

For example, playing Ask is Nicolas Bro, the chubby, beleaguered minister in The Killing II, while Bente is portrayed by Ellen Hillingsø, who was the wig wearing philandering wife in The Bridge. Type casting perhaps?

At the risk of appearing cynical, this film wouldn’t have been released over here if the Nordic Noir boom on TV hadn’t opened the doors, which, of course, puts this firmly in the “cash-in” category, but by the same token we should be thankful that we are given the chance to see such hitherto hidden delights.

It may not have the most original central premise, but Above the Street, Below the Water is a completely serviceable, well made and convincingly acted slice of Nordic drama that may be a little far fetched with its close knit web of philanderers but makes for a solid and engaging viewing experience.