'The Absent One' ('Fasandraeberne'): Film Review

Profanation Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Wild Bunch Distribution

Profanation Still - H 2015

The plot's the thing

Nikolaj Lie Kaas ('Angels & Demons') and Fares Fares ('Zero Dark Thirty') reteam for this second installment in the Danish Department Q series, again directed by Mikkel Norgaard.

A troubling affair involving a double murder of twin siblings is reopened by the Copenhagen cold-case division after the kids’ father commits suicide in The Absent One (Fasandraeberne), the second adaptation of a Jussi Adler-Olsen novel in the Department Q series after 2013’s The Keeper of Lost Causes. The entire behind-the-scenes team, as well as director Mikkel Norgaard and stars Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares, are back for round two, which is again a stylish and strongly acted Nordic noir-style mystery that toggles between the past and the present as it uncovers what really happened in the 1990s at one of the country’s poshest boarding schools.

Even more popular at home than part one, with almost 770,000 admissions (in a country of just 5.6 million inhabitants), Absent was released earlier this year in co-producing Germany and hit French screens this week after an unusual earlier premiere of both Department Q films on VOD to drum up interest.

Rugged and irritable Carl Morck (Kaas) and his colleague, the Syria-born Assad (Fares, who received the "Danish Oscar" for his performance), still run the cold-case division of the Copenhagen police out of a dank basement. They are referred to by their law-enforcement colleagues from upstairs as "the Arab and the alcoholic," though their manly solitude is at least somewhat relieved by the arrival of a new, redheaded secretary, Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt), who turns out to be less of a delicate flower than her name might suggest.   

The trio start investigating a supposedly solved affair from 20 years earlier after an ex-cop takes his own life, having asked Morck about a case that involved the killing of his own two teenage children in the mid-1990s. A local junkie whose parents were unemployed confessed at the time and then somehow got Denmark’s best lawyer (Hans Henrik Clemensen) to defend his case and finally spent only three years in prison, which convinces Morck something wasn’t right. The threesome’s only lead is a call to 911 that was placed by a girl (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina) who probably attended the fancy boarding school close to where the twins were murdered, though she hasn’t been seen in years — even by her close relatives.

Read more 'The Keeper of Lost Causes': Film Review

The adaptation was again economically scripted by Nikolaj Arcel, who has now brought on board his co-writer on the Swedish Millennium films, Rasmus Heisterberg. Like The Keeper of Lost Causes, the film follows the police investigation chronologically while frequent flashbacks to the past elucidate what really happened. Arcel and Heisterberg of course keep their cards close to their chest to avoid revealing too much too soon and editors Morten Egholm and Frederik Strunk cut tightly back and forth between the professional lives of the cops and the sordid private lives of the criminals.

Indeed, it could be argued that the chief pleasure of this series of adaptations — a third one, directed by Norwegian Hans Petter Moland, will start shooting in May — lies in seeing how the plot ricochets back and forth between the past and the present, with the stories showing little interest in societal mores at large the way Nordic noirs like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have (which in turn might explain why they have been less successful at crossing the Atlantic).

Here, the combination of violence and a Scandinavian boarding school setting immediately brings to mind the Swedish Oscar nominee Evil from 2004 — though unlike that feature, or Norgaard’s own previous Department Q film for that matter, Absent’s flashbacks feature plentiful sunshine and warm colors, offering a marked contrast to what viewers know will happen to some of the characters. The film’s original title, which translates as the "The Pheasant Killers," also suggests a recurring leitmotif, namely that of the hunt, though as in Thomas Vinterberg’s Cannes title The Hunt, it’s the kind of symbolism that can get a little heavy-handed in a crime story.

But these are minor quibbles in a work that, at least until its somewhat formulaic yet over-the-top ending, is expertly paced and played, with Kaas again anchoring the film as the tough cop who mostly goes on instinct and doesn’t have time to waste on verbose justifications. A beautifully underplayed scene in which he tersely explains to an incarcerated woman (Danica Curcic) why he does the job that he does and a few brief glimpses of Morck’s domestic life, or rather the lack thereof, with his teenage stepson (Anton Honik), humanize Morck in a way that makes any other kind of explanation about his behavior or intentions entirely superfluous. The rest of the supporting cast is solid, with local stars Pilou Asbaek (Pontius Pilate in the upcoming Ben-Hur remake) and David Dencik (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) both impressive as men who have it all but for whom all isn't quite enough.

Production companies: Zentropa Entertainments, Zentropa Berlin, Zentropa International Sweden, Film i Vast

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Pilou Asbaek, David Dencik, Danica Curcic, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Johanne Louise Schmidt, Marco Ilso, Beate Bille, Peter Christofferson, Soren Pilmark, Anton Honik

Director: Mikkel Norgaard

Screenplay: Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg, based on the novel by Jussi Adler-Olson

Producers: Louise Vesth, Jonas Bagger, Peter Aalbaek Jensen

Executive producers: Doris Schrenner, Wolfgang Feindt, Peter Nadermann

Director of photography: Eric Kress

Production designer: Rasmus Thjellesen

Costume designer: Stine Thaning

Editors: Morten Egholm, Frederik Strunk

Music: Patrick Andren, Uno Helmersson, Johan Soderqvist

Casting: Anja Philip, Rie Hedegaard

Sales: TrustNordisk

No rating, 119 minutes