Northwest (Nordvest)

Denmark (2013) Dir. Michael Noer

Once again another slice of gritty Nordic Noir comes our way to give us further cause to avoid Scandinavia when booking our holidays all the way delivering more tense and thematically unpleasant confrontational dramatic cinema.

The second feature film from former documentary maker Michael Noer takes us into the seedy underbelly of suburban Copenhagen to remind us that crime doesn’t apt if you mess with the wrong person. Skilled teen burglar Casper (Gustav Dyekjær Giese) does small fry break-ins for Arab Jamal (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) usually with little reward, leaving him perpetually skint. Casper’s reputation reaches Bjørn (Roland Møller) a big time drug dealer and pimp who puts in a specific order which Casper fulfils. Bjørn not only rewards Casper handsomely but offers him a job as driver for his girls. Jamal however doesn’t appreciate Casper leaving his employ kicking off a violent tit-for-tat exchange between the two parties.

Nothing remarkable about the story there but it proves to be more than functional in providing as it does the chance for us to take a world away from the usual scenarios found in the excellent TV dramas and films which have preceded it. The intimate hand-held camera work and general documentary style mise-en-scene creates a uneasy atmosphere in which danger lurks ominous in the air in every frame, even when the going is good.

With a social conscience that wouldn’t be amiss in a Shane Meadows film, Casper is less a problem child rather one who steals out of necessity to help out his single mother Olivia (Lene Maria Christensen), younger brother Andy (Gustav’s real life younger brother Oscar Dyekjær Giese) and little sister Freja (Annemieke Bredahl Peppink). When working for Bjørn starts to pay off Casper uses the money to treat the family as opposed to acting flash, although that comes later.

Casper previously worked with his friend Robin (Nicholas Westwood Kidd) who steps aside when the going gets tough and is the first to suffer when the feud gets out of control. In one unintentionally humorous scene, as the pair are breaking into an affluent home the family dog, a tiny little thing, seems happy to have company and bounces along with the intruders, engaging in some fun with Robin instead of protecting the premises like a good dog should!

When Andy comes on board Casper is reluctant to have his younger brother exposed to the same world he now inhabits, being the less mature and more reckless of the two. After a brief but fraught induction into the world of birds, booze and barbiturates, Andy seems to embrace it with a little too much vigour for Casper’s tastes, but is aware of his won hypocrisy in trying to dissuade him from getting in to deep.

Even if we don’t agree with his methods we can see that Casper is at least trying to do right by his family but the warning signs of the company he keeps appear early on when an angry Jamal attacks Andy and steals Casper’s (stolen) Rolex watch. Along with the money Casper and Andy enjoy the seedy high life with Bjørn of drugs, booze and women. But Jamal isn’t going to let it lie and runs into Bjørn’s fists for his troubles. With the first shot now fired a return is due.

What will be of interest to us UK viewers is just how much the Copenhagen we see in this film is just like the working class areas of England – the same empty back yard woodlands, the small houses with tiny unkempt gardens (the upturned wheelbarrows in Jamal’s backyard are especially resonant for this writer) and the meagre décor of the interiors. It’s all a far cry from the glossy metropolis seen in the likes of Borgen or The Bridge.

Noer is keen not to glamorise the crime world or those within it; if anything he is sending a warning to any youngsters who may be swayed into thinking breaking the law is a viable future instead of conventional employment. This isn’t to be taken as a didactic communiqué to be screened in schools as part of their life lesson curriculum however, although its stark message is that potent regardless.  

The two inexperienced leads were apparently cast via Facebook but the providence of this choice is apparent from the get go. Both portray their characters with a raw and unfiltered honesty, their genuine brotherly bond an added bonus to the films already palpable neo-realist conviction. They may have a close natural resemblance to each other by they are able to carve out their own individual personalities to stop the audience getting confused.

Their interaction with their established peers isn’t harmed by their greenness, the most touching being with young Annemieke Bredahl Peppink as Freja. The scene where Casper has to leave is quite heartbreaking thanks to the youngster’s tearful reactions. Of the other cast only Roland Møller gets ample screen time as Bjørn, a subtle essaying of a man who is keen to open doors for he right people while slamming them in the faces of others.

Even at 86 minutes this is a slow burning film, with intermittent bursts of violent energy to punctuate each development, yet the pervasive threat of danger is enough to create an edge even in the quieter moments. The jaunty camerawork isn’t as distracting as you may feel, adding so much to the tense atmosphere and Noes direction is measured and never overambitious or needlessly grandiose for what is a simple tale.

Northwest represents the social conscious side of Danish cinema with its paired down production values and straightforward narrative, but is no less an engaging and deeply affecting outing.