Thomas Vinterberg’s new comedy-drama is a striking piece of work. It is genuinely funny in all of the right places, yet often feels too awkward to laugh at due to its overwhelming patina of melancholy. At the same time that melancholy avoids straying into maudlin territory – even an active moment of tragedy is delivered with a sense of pragmatic inevitability. It is ostensibly a film about alcohol, but really I think it is a film about disappointment.
Four middle-aged male teachers at a Danish school dine together to celebrate a 40th birthday. While drinking a series of pre-chosen wines and spirits, conversation turns to Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud – who has posited that humans are born deficient of 0.05% alcohol in their blood, and that remaining in a permanent state of mild inebriation improves social skills and productivity. Unhappy with their careers and private lives, the four men agree to begin drinking during work hours as an experiment.
To a large extent, the general direction of Another Round seems obvious from the get-go. Despite efforts to soften the film’s impact in English language marketing – notably the title Another Round suggests a warmer, more jolly film that its blunt Danish title Druk (Drunk) – these four men have entered a pact that clearly has one logical result. Like a pistol on Hedda Gabla’s manterpiece, the alcoholic misadventures here lead to a foregone conclusion.
The entertainment and artistic value, then, comes from the beautifully developed and drawn characters and a range of outstanding performances. Star Mads Mikkelsen is gaining the lion’s share with international critics, but while excellent he also seems the most famous of an A-grade ensemble. Mikkelsen plays Martin: a bored history teacher in a marriage long past any point of passion. For viewers used to him playing his English language roles like Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (2016) or Hannibal Lecter in the series Hannibal, it is a major and most welcome contrast. It is a quiet, powerful piece of acting, and one that seems to be capturing a lot of critical attention.
Co-stars Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe all provide exceptional support, with each character approaching the experiment and dealing with the results in different ways. Oftentimes deeply funny, each of their misadventures comes with an automatic sense of paranoia – someone will get caught, or slip up, or take things too far – but when? One thing that unites all four is that their experiment with alcohol seems borne from wanting to make a chance in their own lives: for Martin it is to improve a failing marriage; for Nikolaj (Millang) it is to escape raising several young children; for Tommy (Larsen) and Peter (Ranthe) it seemly seems an escuse to break out of their old habits and feel young again. As noted above, this is a film about disappointment. The alcohol may be plentiful – and the film’s premise makes the presence of all alcohol palpably obvious in every situation – but its focus in on characters and how each craves a change in their life.
Vinterberg thankfully does not entirely focus on the four men at the expense of their families. Maria Bonnevie plays Martin’s wife Anika, whose complex reaction to her husband’s new love for life adds enormous depth to what could have been a two-dimensional plot cypher. As Nikolaj’s wife Amalie, Helen Reingaard Neumann generates enormous sympathy as a mother driven to exhaustion while her immature husband gets drunk with his friends.
From its intriguing premise to its perfectly formed conclusion, Another Round is a mature and inspired blend of comedy, tragedy, and human behaviour. It is absolutely going to be remembered for Mikkelsen’s five-star performance, but we should not miss the thought-provoking story that accomodates it.