One of the unnerving aspects of European backpacking, at least for me (an American), is the watchful eye of prickly travelers; individuals who wait for the perfect moment to criticize. A wrong look at a statue, a perceived statement of ignorance or just a crossing of the arms can set people off: “Ha ha ha… Americans!” On the flip side, some of the best experiences of my life have come by traveling with backpackers of different nationalities; a collective embrace of world history. With that being said, the lead character of Mark Raso’s outstanding directorial debut, Copenhagen, challenged my patience in a major way: an American pretending to be Canadian.
William (Gethin Anthony) has been traveling Europe and he’s the classic American douchebag. He snarls for no apparent reason, throws items around like a child and plays mind games because he’s the smartest guy in the room (in his opinion). But Will isn’t by himself (“Why the fuck would I want to do it alone?!”) — he travels with his best friend Jeremy (Sebastian Armesto) and his girlfriend Jennifer (Olivia Grant). With each ridiculous explosion, William makes life difficult for his companions and finds himself alone in Copenhagen, but with a mission. It’s the birthplace of his estranged father.
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One morning, William stops by a hostel cafe and encounters an intriguing woman he’s noticed a few times already. As William fumbles around with human kindness and a note written in Danish, the young girl spills coffee everywhere but not before memorizing an address on the piece of paper. This awkward scenario sets in motion a delicate love story, as Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen) proves capable of saving the day and rescuing William from himself. But there’s one problem: she’s only 14 years old.
As William learns about the dark past of his grandfather and becomes closer with his new companion, he never assumes that Effy’s still in high school — probably because she doesn’t look her age (Frederikke Dahl Hansen was actually 18 at the time of shooting). She carries herself with confidence, offers thought-provoking questions and, most importantly, acts older than William. It’s a brilliant plot device given the lead’s constant scowling. Together, the duo navigate the streets of Copenhagen until William discovers the truth about Effy… and there’s much more to be revealed.
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Copenhagen surprised me like no other film in 2014, and this was large in part due to Hansen’s powerful screen presence. Once she appears, the film takes on a beautifully mysterious vibe, especially when Effy leads William to a gallery and poses next to an ancient sculpture. It’s her metaphysical twin, and something strange is going on. William comes dangerously close to breaking taboos (and the law), while director Maso challenges the viewer by flaunting fact and fiction.
Maso investigates friendship and romance with a sharp triangle of characters; there’s William, Effy and those who have physically distanced themselves from his life. Some point out William’s flaws verbally (and his own physical behavior speaks volumes), but his true self unravels slowly just as his guard drops with Effy. In a nightclub scene reminiscent of old classics, Effy takes to the stage for a vocal performance that leaves William mouthing “You’re beautiful.” He suffers even if he truly knows right from wrong. What William has come to recognize, however, is that Effy’s company makes him feel better about himself. Maso’s direction allows this to happen poetically rather than contrived. Incidentally, the visuals of Copenhagen serve as a complementary character and are brought to life by cinematographer Alan Poon. In the world of Facebook and Twitter, I don’t quite buy the line, “Have a good life!” midway through Copenhagen, but it’s a minor complaint of Mark Raso’s astonishing feature debut.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.