A Hijacking

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Stories of Somali pirates hijacking ships and holding people hostage for months regularly make the news bulletins but rarely seem to make it to the big screen. Which is odd considering that foreigners waving guns about in front of frightened innocents’ faces is a staple of cinema.

Enter A Hijacking (original title: Kapringen), a Danish offering that welds a cast familiar to viewers of Danish TV sensation Borgen to a twin-track plot – one half takes place on the high seas, the other back at base where negotiations for the hostages’ release are taking place. The result is a drama so involving that, though I’d dragged myself to the cinema with a heavy cold, for just over 100 minutes I didn’t care a bit.

The writer/director, Tobias Lindholm, also has Borgen previous, and he’s working to his strengths. A Hijacking is a strongly procedural drama in which human interaction and the divination of character is the driver. It’s probably best to say right now that there’s no Steven Seagal Under Siege business, just in case you were hoping for a knock-off Die Hard with eyebrow-raised “I also cook” payoff dialogue.

The plot is simple. Out on the Indian Ocean a ship is preparing to head back home when it’s boarded by a gang of gun-happy pirates. With them they’ve brought a negotiator who can speak English. Back in Copenhagen company boss Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) – a ball-breaking businessman with take-no-prisoners negotiating skills – is suddenly presented with a situation he has no experience of. Except, in his estimation, he has. He’s a deal-maker, after all. So, ignoring advice to get in a go-between who does this sort of thing for a living, Peter decides to go it alone and get his men out alive, but at a price that won’t hurt the company.

As I said, the film has a double focus – out on the high seas, where the ship’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), an affable bear, is our increasingly faltering surrogate, and back at base, where Peter is trying to screw down the price without screwing up entirely.

The double-focus procedural is a tricky act to pull off – Apollo 13 does it memorably, but most films that try it fail doubly. A Hijacking succeeds because it decides early on which of its two locations is key – and it’s the boardroom. This puts all concerned in familiar Borgen territory, of personal drama, procedure and millimetre-precise acting, rather than running, gunplay and “move, move, move!” dialogue.

That’s a wise decision. In the film’s favour, is the fact that as viewers we’ve no problem at all working out where we are, hairy Norwegian sailors in vests being instantly distinguishable from suited-and-booted steel-haired chaps in wire-frame spectacles. The natural colour palette – tweaked by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s unshowy filtration – makes things doubly obvious. All is cool and Nordic back in Denmark, bright and warm out in the Indian Ocean.

One odd bit of casting turns out to be in the film’s favour too. Gary Porter playing Connor, Peter’s advisor in Copenhagen is, it turns out, not an actor at all but a real-life negotiator in “hostage situations”. I’m not sure he intended this to be the case but he’s killingly believable early on in meetings when he’s gleaning information from the ship, intel which he then translates back to Peter and his team in management-speak, having, in the process, added no value whatsoever.

Søren Malling as Peter
Søren Malling as Peter

There’s a parallel advisor/negotiator, out on the ship, a shifty Somali (possibly) named Omar who is all wide-eyed claims that he’s as much a hostage as the crew, that he’s a man brought in by the pirates to do a job. Whether he is or isn’t is one of the real masterstrokes of the film, and the acting of Abdihakin Asgar as Omar is also one of the film’s real joys – what a plausible silver-tongued piece of work he is.

This film works because it avoids the Seagal-style stuff entirely, opting instead for realism which would verge on the boring – men lying on bunks, sleeping and so on – if it hadn’t set up its tense throughline so well.

You could take issue with the passing of time in A Hijacking. Some people on the way out of the screening I was at certainly did. We’re at three days into the hijacking, then a couple of weeks, then three months, then six months and so on, without any real sense of time passing. The men’s beards don’t seem to grow much, for instance.

It didn’t bother me. I was too tightly held by the film’s basic coin-flip premise – will Peter, by playing hardball with his insanely low offers of ransom money, get his men killed? Or will the Somalis take a much much lower price than they’re asking for – they want $19 million, Peter’s offering $250,000?

On this question of the price of men’s lives the whole film turns. And what a tense, realistic turn it is.

A Hijacking is released in the UK on Friday 10 May 2013-05-10

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

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