Sunday 25 September 2016

Somali pirates, the dark side of soldiering and a scandal at the Bolshoi

* A War (15A, 115mins), 4 stars
* Last Hijack (12A, 84mins), 2 stars
* Bolshoi Babylon (PG, 87mins), 3 stars

Published 09/01/2016 | 07:00

Thoughtful: Pilou Asbæk stars in 'A War'
Thoughtful: Pilou Asbæk stars in 'A War'

Since 2001 Danish troops have been fighting alongside the British and Americans in Afghanistan, and Tobias Lindholm's thoughtful and meticulous drama examines the messy consequences of that never-ending war. Pilou Asbaek, whom some of you may know from TV shows like Borgen and 1864, plays Claus Michael Pedersen, an honourable, battle-hardened officer whose company are stationed in the wilds of Helmand province.

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Their efforts to bond with the locals, though clumsy, are genuine, but the Taliban are watching them and biding their time. When one of Pedersen's men is killed by a landmine, the commander decides to go out on patrol with his troops himself. But after they're pinned down in a pitched battle, Pedersen gives the order for an air strike on a neighbouring building which turns out to be full of civilians, including eight children.

Back in Copenhagen, a legal investigation will compromise not just Pederson but his wife, his men and his closest friends. Mr Lindholm's film is a game of two halves, and while the Afghan sequences have the gritty veracity of a documentary, the courtroom segments unfold more conventionally, and are full of moral tension. And while A War ultimately raises more questions than it answers, it's a slow, rich and thoughtful thriller.

In one of Tobias Lindholm's other films, A Hijacking, we experienced the violent seizing of western merchant vessels by Somali pirates from the crews' point of view. And though both this and Paul Greengrass's similarly themed Hollywood drama Captain Phillips carefully avoided demonising the often poor and desperate brigands, Last Hijack goes a stage further in making a pirate its hero, and protagonist.

Theoretically, Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting's film is a documentary, but it lacks the focus and journalistic intent of a really good one, and instead slips into impressionistic visual excesses as it tells the story of Nura. With his gold teeth and fondness for firearms, Nura aspires to the cocky swagger of an LA gang-banger, but never quite manages it. A former farmer from a village that was devastated by the Somali Civil War, he's carried out a number of attacks on passing merchant vessels that yielded ransoms as high as $2 million. But Nura has spent it all like a drunken sailor, and is in constant need of another pay day.

He isn't very likeable, or bright, and we're offered plenty of evidence that hijacking has been rejected as a dishonorable career choice by the vast majority of his compatriots. His actual attacks we never get to see of course, and instead we're given the clumsy symbolism of some dreary animated sequences in which Nura transforms into a bird of prey that plucks ships from the ocean below him.

Remarkably, Last Hijack's directors did all their work remotely, and never set foot in Somalia: no doubt they decided the subject of their film was much too dangerous a place to actually visit.

Three years ago, Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet was exposed as a nest of vipers when its artistic director Sergei Filin had acid thrown in his face. It later emerged that Pavel Dmitrichenko, a well-liked Bolshoi dancer, had organised the attack, and in the subsequent court case the venerable institution had its dirty laundry aired in public.

This handsome but slight documentary by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti takes us behind the scenes as the institution recuperates under the stern hand of new director Vladimir Urin, and gives us glimpses into how hard and fleeting are the careers of male and especially female Bolshoi dancers.

Those insights, however, are too fleeting and insubstantial, and Bolshoi Babylon leaves one hungry for more facts and documentary vigour.

Coming soon...

The Revenant (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson); Room (Brie Larson, Joan Allen); Creed (Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan).

Irish Independent

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