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FILMS Denmark

Review: A Fortunate Man

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- Bille August, the director of Pelle the Conqueror, nails another Danish classic

Review: A Fortunate Man
Esben Smed in A Fortunate Man (© Rolf Konow)

The case of Bille August is similar to those of many a talented “foreign” director: a fertile domestic output leads to international recognition – in August’s case, he was crowned with an Oscar and a Palme d’Or for Pelle the Conqueror (1987), and scooped the Palme again for Best Intentions (1991) – and then to English-language assignments. And then, all too often, it leads to artistic remission – in this case, witnessed in The House of the Spirits (1993), Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997) and Night Train to Lisbon [+see also:
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 (2013), which were tidily crafted prestige projects but had the personal voice on mute mode. Ingmar Bergman, full of praise for August’s handling of Bergman’s Best Intentions script, spoke of “the meat factory out there, where you may lose an arm, a leg, or more”. Sadly, this often means the roots. 

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Thankfully, August has also tended his Scandinavian soil, especially in the last decade: A Song for Martin (2001) and Silent Heart [+see also:
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 (2014) are fine-tuned family studies, while the grandly designed The Passion of Marie [+see also:
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 (2012) got somewhat lost among all the period paraphernalia. He now seeks out more of the same, in even grander fashion, and this time, he nails it. A Fortunate Man [+see also:
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interview: Bille August
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, as challenging as any project that August has taken on, is based on Henrik Pontoppidan’s Nobel Prize-winning Lucky Per (written between 1898 and 1904), voted the second-greatest Danish novel of the century in 1999. First published in English in 2010, international awareness will be of the director, rather than the novel – a director, let it be said, not so much of Night Train to Lisbon as of Pelle the Conqueror (itself based on a classic Danish novel, placed fourth in the aforementioned novel-of-the-century vote). 

Indeed, the protagonist, gifted hothead Peter Andreas Sidenius (an electrifying, downright James Dean-like performance by 2017 Shooting Star Esben Smed), is a would-be conqueror himself. In the 1880s, he flees his suffocating Lutheran surroundings in rural Denmark for the relative metropolis of Copenhagen. Engineering is his calling, and his progressive ideas eventually gain ground, not least in the opulent Jewish milieu. Sidenius is welcomed by the wealthy Salomon family and baptised “Lucky Per” by the son, Ivan, who runs his own little sponsoring project in search of “geniuses”. Per also gets acquainted with the winsome Salomon sisters, especially the older Jakobe (a radiant Katrine Greis-Rosenthal, seen in The Bridge), whose insightful humanistic worldviews intrigue him. They get engaged, Per’s precious blueprints are about to get realised, and he’s on the verge of conquering the world. But escaping the constraints of social heritage is hard when you’re your own worst enemy…

It’s poignant storytelling, melancholic, refined, wry, timeless and modern, empathetically adapted by the father-son team of Bille and Anders August. Their liberties with the original text (some 600-900 pages, subject to font size) are sometimes considerable but are ultimately tailor-made for the screen and may well entice new readers to delve into the book.

The film looks gorgeous on every technical level, from the Copenhagen locations to the costume design. Lead parts and walk-ons alike are cherished by solid veterans. Overall, this is a dazzling experience.

Whether Bille August will again conquer the world remains to be seen, but he has just been shortlisted for the 2019 Academy Awards by the Danish Oscar committee.

A Fortunate Man opens in Danish cinemas on 30 August and will be shown in prolonged miniseries format in December on TV2. It was produced by Nordisk Film, and its international sales are managed by TrustNordisk.

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