Gary Raymond reviews One Way to Denmark, a new film starring Rafe Spall as a hopeless Welsh man attempting to find a better life in a Danish prison.
The most memorable thing about One Way to Denmark is that it’s a cracking elevator pitch. A man, seeing his escape from a dying Welsh town in the luxurious prison systems of Denmark, sets out on foot to rob the first bank he sees in Copenhagen, or Odense, or Esbjerg, or wherever it is he ends up landing. By the time Herb, the man in question, gets to Denmark, it doesn’t seem to matter. With the set-up done and pats on the back all round, there is a palpable sense that the hard work has been done, and the film will make itself. It doesn’t. One Way to Denmark is a mixture of drawn-out scenes stretched to the furthest reaches of a reasonable attention span, underwritten moments of human connection, superficial politics and wasted actors. It’s not that One Way to Denmark is a bad film (although it’s certainly not a good one), it’s that the moment it’s finished, it’s gone, as if it was never there, like waking from a dream you know you had but you can’t remember the smallest detail.
Which makes for a difficult time writing a review of it. Because if One Way to Denmark’s greatest flaw is its insubstantiality, then how am I meant to grasp onto anything to give a reader a sense of it? Here everything slips through the fingers, slips through the mind. Reviewing One Way to Denmark is like being recruited for one of those clinical tests for memory-enhancing drugs. “What colour was the coat Herb was wearing when he robbed the bank?”. “Who is Herb? Was there a bank robbery? What is coat?”.
But I’ll give it a go by starting with an outline of the story.
Herb is down and out, in a basement flat in a left-behind town of the south Wales valleys, no job, no future, barely much of a past (he has a threadbare relationship with his estranged teenage son). As things get worse and Herb begins to wonder exactly what happens next for him, he sees on YouTube a documentary about the prison systems of Denmark; the criminals there have warm beds and hot water, three square meals a day, attend workshops, go for walks in the woods, smile at their friends with their perfect white teeth and build things with their hands underneath crisp blue skies. Idyllic. Herb, at his wits end, plans to go to Denmark, rob a bank, get banged up, and live a better life with more hope than Wales can offer him. So, off he goes, enabled by his mates, stowing-away in a freight and turning up in a Danish harbour town. There he meets barmaid Mathilde, who takes him under her wing. But he is resolved to robbing the bank, and after much soul-searching and hanging around in the town square, Herb finally flips. Don’t worry, it has something of a happy ending, one where nobody is eternally damned. It is an ending laced with hope, although there is little in the film that you can honestly say has earned it.
As a three-act film, only the first act really has anything to say. In Wales, where we meet Herb and his town, there is a sense of hopelessness, and it builds to a place where Herb’s irrational plan seems completely believable. But once he embarks on it, there is a curious disconnect between the filmmakers and the film being made. The second act is Herb’s journey, completely lacking in any imagination, any sense of peril, any zaniness. Steven Spiers’ lorry driver adds a bit of colour, but it’s Spiers-by-numbers, which unfortunately doesn’t add up to very much. In Denmark, we plod along, spend way too much time watching Herb using the public toilets, and way too much time with him staring into space. Writer Jeff Murphy seems to have abandoned all hope around these pages. An unlikely romance between Herb and Mathilde (a charismatic Simone Lykke) where she is apparently so won over by his hobo charms she takes him to the countryside for a meal with her mum (every mum in Scandinavia is an artist who lives in a remote cottage near the sea, don’t forget). It is a strained strand, one that is meant to give Herb a chance to open up about his own past and current disintegrating relationships. But this is less Bergman at the beach and more dragging out a thin script to hit feature film length.
Rafe Spall has a good stab at Herb, a character that feels like he has some depth, but then you realise that depth is just an impression given by an accumulation of tropes. His Welsh accent is pretty good, but once again, we must ask if an English actor would be plonked in a Glasgow tenement and asked to do a Scottish accent, or if a film about the Troubles would see a London-thesp like Spall dragooned in to do his best Iain Paisley. I think not. Spall surrounded by Welsh actors while he does his best with an Abertillery drawl is a bit embarrassing for all concerned. Star-power, and the argument Welsh actors don’t have it, is an excuse, not a reason.
One Way to Denmark is a film that comes from a strong tradition; that of central characters, ordinary men, pressured into extraordinary acts by the cruelties of socioeconomic politics and prejudices that have asphyxiated their lives. Think of what a film it could have been with the energy of people who really cared about the characters. Think of Pacino in A Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978), Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993). There are countless other examples; ordinary men who crack, desperate, broken, and they take us with them; even during their most inexcusable actions, we sympathise. That is not the case with Herb. When he finally gets his gun out, it’s really not cool.
The reason for this failure is partly in Spall’s miscasting, but is mainly in the fact the filmmakers are quite apparently not really interested in the politics. These old left-behind working-class Welsh towns are in a bad way, and the people in them are in a bad way too. That’s as deep as the message gets. Once Herb is out of Wales there is nothing to him as a character. He drifts, the story drifts, and so do we.
One Way to Denmark is available to watch online.