Hygge. A Danish word a tricky pronunciation for us Brits which found its way into the language a few years back but which means something very simple. It’s all to do with comfort – making it a gift to anybody making home furnishings – but underneath it’s more about consolation or, as Rafe Spall’s character in One Way To Denmark (known in some territories simply as Denmark) would describe it, “comfortable in your own skin.” And, just as he would love to find it for himself, the latest from director Adrian Shergold aspires to be a cinematic version of the concept.
For Herb (Spall), life is like banging his head against a brick wall. Stuck in a Welsh former pit town with no job, no family and living in a tip of a basement flat, things reach rock bottom when he’s mugged by some local teenagers. A possible, if extreme, way out presents itself in a TV documentary about prison life in Denmark, where everybody has an individual cell with a wide screen TV and a private shower, medical treatment and a job. It’s everything he could wish for and is enough for him to stowaway over to Denmark.
For a director who’s made films like Funny Cow and Pierrepoint, Shergold has gone for something softer, almost whimsical in tone, which occasionally touches on more serious issues, such as depression and fractured family relationships. But he barely scratches much below the surface, concentrating his efforts on making what starts out as a comedy and then shifts into something more contemplative, two halves that essentially don’t mesh especially well. The first half creates Herb’s life in Wales, one peppered with familiar British character actors (Joel Fry from Yesterday, a fleeting appearance from The Full Monty’s Paul Barber) and which comes with some delicious moments of typically dry Welsh humour. All that is cast aside, however, when he arrives in Denmark – where it rains even more than in Wales – and strikes up two friendships that mark the start of him turning things around. Single mum Mathilde (Simone Lykke) and a stray Irish wolfhound which follows him around like an indelible shadow.
What holds it together is Spall’s performance. Yes, Herb is a bit of a hopeless case – photographed after his arrest by Danish police, his name is shown as A Herbert – but he’s not a bad guy, just down on his luck. And in the actor’s hands, he’s sympathetic, with more depth than the script would seem to allow. You want things to get better for him, even if the route his life takes once he gets to Denmark seems to veer more towards a formula than it really should.
Despite the mismatch between its two halves and the resulting awkward shift in tone, One Way To Denmark has enough going for it – it’s visually attractive, painting a quirky picture of Denmark that manages to avoid being cute – to hold on to your attention. More meat on the bones of what is essentially a downbeat but nonetheless hopeful story would have helped it hold on your memory as well.
Comedy, Drama | Cert: 15 | Blue Finch Releasing | Digital, 20 July 2020 | Dir. Adrian Shergold | Rafe Spall, Simone Lykke, Thomas W Gabrielsson, Joel Fry, Tim Woodward, Paul Barber.