'Sons of Denmark': Film Review | Rotterdam 2019

Full-blooded Scandinavian drama has major screenplay issues but marks out its director, lead and cinematographer as names to note.

Zaki Youssef and Mohammed Ismail Mohammed star in Ulaa Salim's debut feature, a Danish political thriller premiering in the main competition at the Netherlands festival.

The hazardous line between topical and opportunistic runs through Sons of Denmark (Danmarks Sonner), an ambitious, provocative, politically charged thriller from Danish feature-debutant Ulaa Salim. More of an advertisement for Salim's directorial chops than for his writing skills, this slickly handled vision of day-after-tomorrow Scandinavia clicked with Rotterdam audiences when premiering in the main competition at the Dutch showcase. This reception indicates the picture has the makings of a lively box office prospect at home and in adjoining territories. Further afield, festival play could segue into art house exposure in those many countries, in Europe and beyond, where right-wing populism has become an inescapable element in the social landscape.

Mainly set in 2025, a year after a bomb attack in Copenhagen claimed 23 lives — presented in a prologue that explicitly and explosively echoes Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men — the film initially focuses on Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed), a 19-year-old of Iraqi parentage. Increasingly angry over the anti-Islamic climate evident in Denmark since the terrorist incident, Zakaria is recruited by neighborhood elder Hassan (Imad Abul-Foul) to assassinate right-wing demagogue Martin Nordahl (Rasmus Bjerg), whose National Movement party is tipped to win the upcoming general election.

Greenhorn Zakaria is trained for the hit by the more experienced Ali (Zaki Youssef), initially a somewhat peripheral figure in the action who takes center stage after the screenplay's big twist, around the hour mark. This unexpected structural flourish is an effective rug-puller, but it isn't enough to counterbalance the major implausibility of the film's first half: Why on earth would Hassan entrust such an important job to such a raw teenager (whose skin we never really get under), especially with his tough right-hand man, Ali, right there as a much more plausible assassin?

The second half also has a problematic screenwriting issue: Having effectively saved Nordahl's life, the question isn't so much if Ali is going to be the one to end it but how. Getting Ali and the audience to that crucial juncture involves some heavy-handed, melodramatic developments of blunt dramatic irony, further betraying Salim's relative inexperience. But while this combination of implausibility and predictability conspire to sink Sons of Denmark, as a calling card for Salim it will likely prove sufficiently watertight to sail him into higher-profile berths.

His handling of both intimate, dialogue-centric scenes and more spectacular action-based interludes is (with the exception of one clumsily executed rendezvous in a church) strikingly confident. There's rousing deployment of Mozart's "Lacrimosa" (from "Requiem") in conjunction with consistently high-toned, widescreen cinematography from Eddie Klint. The latter, also making his debut feature, having worked with the director on several shorts, can likewise expect further doors to open as a result of his efforts here. Yet another big-screen newcomer to note is co-lead Youssef, a compellingly vigorous presence who makes the most of a tricky role and achieves an impressive graduation from his previous TV roles.

Sons of Denmark itself has the feel of a project which could very easily have been presented as a multipart miniseries for the small screen. This larger canvas would have allowed, for example, a greater sense of the wider political context. As it is, we get much less of a flavor of Copenhagen's Muslim scene than to be found, for example, in Omar Shargawi's Go With Peace Jamil, which nabbed Rotterdam's Tiger Award in 2008.

Also, Bjerg's media-savvy Nordahl comes across as something of a one-man party, rather than a representative of a bigger picture of prejudice and xenophobia. With limited screen time, Bjerg nonetheless turns in a chillingly convincing characterization, his folksy "straight-speaking" style a classic example of the velvet glove concealing an iron fist. He's central to what is perhaps the picture's best-written single scene, in which Nordahl is a guest on a TV chat show that — in what has become a notoriously familiar real-world trope — goes out of its way to humanize and normalize an individual who only a few years before would probably have been shunned as a dangerous pariah.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Competition)
Production company: Hyaene Film
Cast: Zaki Youssef, Mohammed Ismail Mohammed, Imad Abul-Foul, Rasmus Bjerg, Ozcem Saglanmak
Director-screenwriter: Ulaa Salim
Producer: Daniel Muhlendorph Jensen
Cinematographer: Eddie Klint
Production designer: Silje Dammen
Costume designer: Juan Bastias
Editor: Jenna Mangulad
Composer: Lewand Othman
Casting: Hyaene Casting
Sales: New Europe Film Sales, Warsaw

In Danish and Arabic
120 minutes