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A Danish feature about the declining fishing industry in Jutland might sound like a hard sell outside the Nordic territories, but The Sunfish is a surprisingly good watch. Accessible, well-acted, and neatly made, the film represents an auspicious directorial debut for Soren Balle, who co-wrote the script with Laerke Sanderhoff and script consultant C.C. Holst. The tale of a small-boat owner facing economic hardship due to declining fish stocks, this Ken Loach-like realist drama would theoretically interest select viewers from New Glasgow in Nova Scotia to old Glasgow in Scotland if only it weren’t for those pesky subtitles to which many mainstream viewers are so adverse. Programmers, on the other hand, might not find this arty enough to help it find its sea legs on the festival circuit (unlike, for example, the recent fishing documentary Leviathan), but producers interested in remake rights might want to scope it out.
Pushing 60 and still paying for a painful divorce, third-generation fisherman Kesse (Henrik Birch, a regular in the Danish version of The Killing and Borgen) owns and operates a small boat out of the harbor of Hirtshals, a Northern Danish town whose whole economy is generated by the sea. His one employee is Lars (Lars Topp Thomsen), a motor-mouthed younger man whose only other interests are chasing girls and boozing. When Kesse and the other fisherman are offered extra fish quotas (transferable rights to catches which are strictly regulated) to anyone who will let a marine biologist on board to study their catches, Kasse at first declines, being habitually suspicious of outsiders from the big city. However, an interview with his bank reveals he’s in the deep waters of debt, and his only choice is either to sell off some his haul illegally or let the biologist join him on the waves for six trips. Having always been known for his probity, he chooses the latter.
The biologist in question turns out to be attractive Gerd (Susanne Storm), a warm-hearted woman of Kesse’s generation who manages to thaw his icy front with humor and a passion for all things aquatic that matches his own. Although rude to her on the boat at first, he later tends to her kindly when she gets seasick during a choppy ride, and the two start bond over sightseeing trips around the area. During a scuba-diving session at the local aquarium, Gerd introduces Kesse to the sunfish (Mola mola) of the title, a massive, disc-shaped creature that, like Kesse, seems to hail from a different era.
Once the couple start sleeping together – a very middle-aged kind of affair, full of wariness and shy delight – things take a turn for the worse financially for Kasse. He tries temporarily laying Lars off, who takes it very badly, and manning the ship alone, but after a serious injury he has no choice but to hire Lars back and start selling stock illegally to a shady wholesaler (Lars Ditlev Johansen). If caught, he could lose him his fishing license, but the only other option is selling the boat and taking work in the local fish factory, a career his best friend Soren (Mikkel Vadsholt, providing fine comic relief), once a fisherman too, has accepted with stoic equanimity.
Viewers unfamiliar with the fishing industry are gently introduced via the script to its complexities, and the film manages to make what might sound off-puttingly dull into a compelling parable about the interaction between traditional industries, politics, environmental agendas, and the underworld. (Who knew there was a black market in cod?) Subplots and seemingly minor characters are all deftly woven back in to the main story with an impressive grace, although some might find the whole thing a little too tidy and TV-movie neat. But there’s no gainsaying the quality of the acting, the backbone of so much Danish drama, shown off with easy aplomb by the ensemble here, led by Birch as the craggy, likeable Kesse.
The craft contributions are unfussily efficient, but not especially memorable apart from Flemming Nordkrog’s affable score of which strikes a happy medium between sea-shanty folksiness and electronic modernity.
Venue: Gothenburg Film Festival (competition)
Production: Film Maker
Cast: Henrik Birch, Susanne Storm, Lars Topp Thomsen, Jacob Hauberg Lohmann, Mikkel Vadsholt, Lone Rodbroe
Director: Soren Balle
Screenwriter: Soren Balle, Laerke Sanderhoff, C.C. Holst
Producers: Claudia Siesbye Halsted
Director of photography: Martin Munch
Production designer:Knirke Madelung
Editors: Peter Winther
Music: Flemming Nordkrog
No rating, 100 minutes
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