From Dante’s Peak and Volcano to Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, every so often there’s a year with multiple films about the same topic. Sometimes it’s an obvious cash-grab on behalf of one studio copying another and sometimes it’s just a coincidence. This year we have the Paul Greengrass film Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks. Hanks plays the titular Phillips in a intense action thrill-ride as his ship is hijacked by Somali pirates. Sadly it seems like this film will overshadow the Danish Somali pirate film A Hijacking, directed by Tobias Lindholm. Both films have the same topic but differ wildly. While Captain Phillips is an almost real time action thriller, A Hijacking deals with the long term repercussions and trauma of a hijacking as well as the frustrating stress of negotiating with pirates. It offers something completely different from the Greengrass film and does not deserve to be overlooked, as it’s as fascinating as it is suspenseful.
The film’s story jumps between two characters, the boat’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek) and Peter (Soren Malling) the CEO of the shipping company who is also the lead negotiator. Mikkel is a good-natured man whose family is desperate to have back. Peter is a somewhat stern boss but he’s very clearly the best at what he does. Then comes the off-screen hijacking and both their lives are turned upside down. A pirate expert is quickly brought in to help the company get their men out safely. Peter is advised to bring in a professional pirate negotiator but he decides against it as he’s an excellent negotiator and he feels personal responsibility for his men. Both men have to deal with very different fears and stresses as the negotiations go on for weeks.
I found the experience of watching this to be really interesting. This is not a flashy film in any respect; almost everything feels dialed back a little bit. At no point does it take the easy road to tension. Even the most obviously intense moment of the hijacking itself happens off-screen. Lindholm is opting for realism and the reality is that hijackings can often take months to fix. Pirates are not exactly the most reasonable of folk and Peter quickly learns how frustrating it can be to negotiate with people who are thinking completely differently from you. Time is not an issue for them and that just wears everyone else down. So the first third of the film is a lot of set-up and it takes a while to get acquainted to the situation. Then out of nowhere it just hits a hot streak of constant suspense.
As we see the slow back and forth between Peter and the pirates multiple different tensions arise. There’s the obvious and incessant fear that the crew of the ship will be killed, there’s the fear that the stress will become too much for Peter and negotiations will fall apart, there’s the fear that Mikkel will give in to panic, and the constant physiological games played between the negotiators makes it feel like the lives of these men depends on a tightrope walk. No part of the film feels exaggerated or over-dramatic so we have these subdued layered suspenseful elements all working together and it makes for a really gripping watch.
One of the major aspects that really holds everything together is the emotional and psychological realism. Lindholm clearly recognises how an awful event like this does not only traumatise those directly involved but it reverberates to all those indirectly involved. Peter has to deal with being responsible for the lives of several men; he meets with their families and is the face they will direct their ire at if things go sour. The mental anguish he goes through is never treated as less important just because Mikkel is in more direct physical danger. In some films the only real danger is death. We accept the main character will survive and then the only worry is what supporting characters are in danger. Here the dangers are numerous and mainly internal. Mikkel doesn’t just have to worry about surviving, he’s worrying that when he returns to his wife and child he won’t return as the same man he was before. The film deals with how a hijacking can severely impact so many different people, and that adds more emotional weight to what is already an enthralling experience.
A Hijacking doesn’t just provide an insight into how negotiations with pirates go down but it’s also just an absorbing story of two men becoming psychologically strained. It takes a while to get going but it eventually settles into a consistently intense groove. The perfor mances across the board are excellent and other than a few on-the-nose lines at the beginning it’s a great script too. All in all it’s a deeply thoughtful and intense drama that really pulled me in.
Drama, World Cinema, Arthouse
DVD/BD Release Date:
26th August 2013 (UK)
Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling, Dar Salim