Editor’s Note: Continuing with his reviews of “movies with a conscience,” the Sun’s film critic evaluates this year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best International Feature, a Danish production that explores the dual nature of alcohol as a life enhancer and a depressant. Available on Netflix DVD, to stream on Hula and to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and YouTube. View trailer here.
Ernest Hemingway had a steadfast rule—no drinking after 8 p.m. and never on weekends. In other words, he could drink only when he was working. That work brought him both Pulitzer and Nobel prizes.
Now I’m not pretending to be another Hemingway, but I have to admit that I frequently settle down at the keyboard with a glass of wine by my side. There is no denying that, for me, a glass or two of red wine eliminates life’s little irritants, facilitates my concentration and helps to channel me into a “flow state.” Even if it doesn’t really help me write, it makes me at least think that I’m doing better at it.
Humans and alcohol have a long history. They have found evidence of fermented honey, rice and fruit with human artifacts dating back to 8,000 B.C. in the Yellow River Valley of China. “Another Round,” a Danish production, takes as its premise that humans actually need alcohol to function at their best. This is an interesting conceit, but a false interpretation of a study by a Norwegian psychiatrist, Finn Skarderud. The film says that Skarderud found that humans are born with a .05% blood alcohol deficit and, so his theory goes, humans should drink continuously enough to eliminate that deficit. Turns out Skarderud never made this assertion and is very upset at how “Another Round” misinterprets his work—but that is another story.
Four Danish high school teachers, all stuck in the humdrum of lackluster careers and unsatisfying personal relationships, somehow latch onto Skarderud’s “theory” and decide to test the proposition by adopting Hemingway’s rule. They drink only while “on the job,” teaching students at their high school. They secret vodkas in small flasks and in their water bottles and, true to both Hemingway and Skarderud, manage to maintain a reasonable level of intoxication all day long.
The results are remarkable. Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), the P.E. coach, steers his various teams to new levels of performances and even makes a game-time hero out of a small, timid kid nicknamed Specs. Peter (Lars Ranthe) is the philosophy instructor. He learns to relate effectively to a poor young man, desperate to pass his senior exams, and helps this student ace his orals with a stunning account of Kierkegaard and his concept of failure. Nikolai (Magnus Millang) turns around his undistinguished choristers, getting them to harmonize on complex parts with enchanting voices none of them imagined they possessed.
And Martin (in another outstanding performance from Mads Mikkelson, best known for playing Hannibal Lector on NBC’s “Hannibal”) reinvigorates his world history class, turning what both he and his students had assumed was an intrinsically boring subject into an animated discussion of how specific individuals, with their unique personalities, can make an important difference to their times. Martin also finds that his renewed passion for life recharges his marriage (yes, there is a tender sex scene), and renews his bonds with his children. Martin, perhaps more than the other three characters, ends up more deeply engaged—all from maintaining that elusive .05 blood alcohol level.
But, as many of us know, that wonderful sense of well-being that comes right after the second drink can quickly morph into a dangerous sense of invincibility and an unrealistic set of expectations. One night, as the four educators are reveling in their successes, Martin proposes that they “up the game” by taking their drinking to the next level. For a while, they enjoy even more success. Things start to get complicated. The teachers find it increasingly difficult to hide their inebriation.
Then the alcohol wins the control battle—fear, and inhibitions, disappear. And so does better judgment. Catastrophe is just around the corner, and when it is encountered, it can have a sobering effect. Or, in some tragic cases, it does not.
“Another Round” won the this year’s Academy Award for Best International Feature, and its director, Thomas Vinterberg, was also nominated. Of the other International Feature nominees, I have seen only “Romania’s Collective,” an entirely different kind of film, so I’m unprepared to say whether “Another Round” deserved the Oscar. But I can say that the partnership of Vinterberg and Mikkelson is an established and terrific collaboration. They first worked together in the 2012 feature, “The Hunt,” in which Mikkelson plays a kindergarten teacher who is unfairly accused of sexual abuse. These two artists have an intimate understanding of each other’s abilities to bring out dramatic moments laced with dark comedy. Witness a telling scene in “Another Round” of just how bad things have gotten when Martin attempts to measure his BAC (blood alcohol concentration) level with a baby monitor!
Mikkelson is one of this era’s underestimated actors. He had a wonderful role in “Casino Royale” as a James Bond villain (who cried blood out of one eye). He managed to convey just the right amount of reserve and evil. In “Another Round,” he brings his classical ballet training to the final scene, ending the movie on an optimistic note with an uplifting dance. His exuberant moves are all the more impressive when you consider that Mikkelson executed the choreography himself without body doubles.
The movie excels technically in other ways. The editing is tight, and the cinematography is terrific, particularly in how it simulates re the effects of drinking by giving certain scenes a woozy quality. This wizardry is especially noteworthy given that, supposedly, none of the actors drank during or prior to filming.
“Another Round” is dedicated to Vinterberg’s high school-age daughter, Ida, who was killed in a car crash just days into filming. While alcohol was, apparently, not directly involved in the accident, it should be noted that Denmark has the highest rate of teenage drinking in all of Europe. Recent attempts to raise the drinking age from 16 to 18 were voted down because, it was reported, adults wanted children to have fond memories like they did of their teenage drinking years.
While Martin gets his life straightened around after his experimentation with alcohol, not everyone else does—neither in the movie, nor in real life. Remember that Hemingway committed suicide at age 61. Don’t worry—I really don’t compare myself to Hemingway, I’m well beyond 61, and I have none of the anxiety of trying to live up to the expectations that come with prestige prizes. So, I’ll be writing reviews for a while longer. 4 stars