Being known as the sexiest man in Denmark may be a dubious honour – it is, after all, a country of fewer than 6 million people. Nevertheless there are plenty of other places where Mads Mikkelsen’s charms are appreciated. Australia, for instance.
Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round does not immediately show Mads at his strapping best. He plays Martin, a high school history teacher who has sunk into a mid-life depression so crippling he can barely remember what he’s been talking about from one lesson to the next. He drifts around like a man in a stupor, but as yet there’s no alcohol in the picture.
The first glint of firewater appears at a birthday party in a swanky restaurant where Martin sits with three of his fellow teachers, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe) and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang). As the evening gets progressively more bibulous, birthday boy Nikolaj tells the group about the Norwegian philosopher, Finn Skårderud – obviously a graduate from Monty Python’s University of Wolloomolooo – who has a theory that human beings are born with a blood alcohol level that’s 0.05 percent too low.
Skåderud’s recipe for health and happiness is to drink a couple of glasses of wine every so often to bring that alcohol level up to the mark. The constant tippler will be happier, sharper and more relaxed. To Martin, sinking ever further into a mental fog, this sounds like it might be worth a try.
A quick swig of vodka before work seems to perk him up, just as the guru predicted. When Martin tells his buddies they wonder whether they should all try the experiment, dutifully recording their observations as if it were a scientific research project. As the first results are promising, the logical next step is to increase the dose and see what happens. And then to increase it again.
For Martin the alcohol gets him refocused on his classes and restores his popularity with the students. He also surprises his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie) and two teenaged sons, with his sudden return to life. We know, however, that the good times are destined not to last.
In the first scenes of the movie Vinterberg has shown us the high school students binge drinking and going on a drunken spree. It’s not something we’re supposed to admire, although I overheard two elderly ladies in the row in front laughing and saying “Ah, doesn’t it take you back!”
The thought of four middle-aged teachers going to work every day in a mildly drunken state is alarming: a veritable P & C nightmare. As the empty bottles pile up so do the mishaps and the narrow escapes. When the brave researchers push themselves to the limit one night all inhibitions are thrust aside, with predictably disastrous results. Meanwhile it seems the large quantities of vodka that were alleviating Martin’s marriage problems have begun to have a negative impact.
If this were just a movie about the dangers of alcohol we could all purse our lips, nod approvingly, then go get a drink. What Vinterberg has given us is something more complex: a portrait of four teachers who have grown bored and unhappy with their lives while not wanting to admit the depths of their despair. Tommy and Peter are lonely bachelors, Martin’s marriage is a mess. Nikolaj, who has an attractive wife from a wealthy family and two small children, feels he has fallen into a rut from which there is no escape.
Their experiment rekindles an almost adolescent sense of adventure. They know they are doing something utterly out-of-line but this only adds to the appeal, with the pseudoscientific trimmings providing the thinnest of justifications. Soon the boozing has become such an obsession that Martin is telling his class about Winston Churchill’s drinking habits, while Peter is suggesting to a student that he should take a nip before an oral exam. (As the exam is on Kierkegaard, it’s not such a bad idea). The worst effected is Tommy, who rapidly develops into a full-blown alcoholic.
It’s bad, and there are dire consequences, but the ending is not at all what might be expected. Instead of the predictable moral warning about what happens to those who rely on an alcoholic “buzz” to help them through the day, Vinterberg takes a more ambiguous approach. The problem is not alcohol per se, it’s the people to use it as a panacea for everything that’s wrong in their lives. Does every drink have to be pathologised? A celebration without drinking can be a stilted affair. There’s even a case to be made for the occasional burst of Dionysian frenzy as a kind of social safety valve.
As we wait for the credits to roll the story does a quick, final pivot from tragedy to euphoria as Martin drops his gloomy demeanour in spectacular fashion. It also reminds us that Mads Mikkelsen was a gymnast and dancer before he took up acting. Having watched Martin lurch and stumble his way through much of the movie it’s startling to find he’s capable of co-ordinated movement let alone the moves he pulls out when the experiment, and the school year, are over. Despite everything we’ve seen so far we’re left wondering if perhaps the melancholy Dane is nothing more than a pernicious stereotype.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Written by Thomas Vinterberg & Tobias Lindholm
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie
Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands, rated M, 117 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 February, 2021