Denmark (aka One Way to Denmark) doesn’t look immediately like a remake of the 1949 movie The History of Mr Polly, because it isn’t. But it has roughly the same plot shape and is dealing in the same sort of feelgood, which after the picture of woe it’s painted in its setup, feels entirely welcome.
Mr Polly saw the miserable and passive Polly (John Mills) – locked in a loveless marriage and living a life he hated running a draper’s shop – given a second chance of happiness in the figure of a warm, lovely woman who runs an idyllic inn beside a picturesque river. It worked so well in 1949 (and still does) because it takes its time situating us in Polly’s wretched world and mindset before getting us out of Dodge.
Denmark does the same thing, introducing us to Herb (Rafe Spall), a down-on-his-luck divorced man in Austerity Britain. He mends old tech – toasters and record players sort of thing – for people who can’t afford to buy new, and as a sideline he grows a bit of weed in his mum’s house. Scraping along.
He lives in West Wales. It’s cold, it’s bleak, everyone’s broke – Richard Hawley’s dour soundtrack emphasising the lack of sunshine in Herb’s life. Doubly reinforced when he bumps into an old mate, The Captain (Joel Fry, another lovely crack-of-madness turn), who’s been off travelling the world and is back with stories of the great things happening anywhere else but here.
And then Herb gets jumped and robbed – his phone, jacket, shoes… and chips. When he gets home his neighbour is again at it with the banging choons and will not desist. At which point, at this low ebb, Herb sees a TV news item on how civilised prison life is in Denmark, and he formulates a crackpot plan to go there, do something criminal and get thrown into jail.
Armed with a fake gun, and having hitched a lift with a lorry driver, he arrives in Denmark, where, director Adrian Shergold clearly wants us to know, everything is just a bit better than it is in the UK – even the public toilets work.
And here, lovely Denmark standing in for Mr Polly’s inn by the river, Herb meets a lovely woman, bartender Matilda (Simone Lykke), who does here what Megs Jenkins did for John Mills in The History of Mr Polly, or might do if things work out.Things are getting slightly fanciful by this point. Matilda is the sort of hot young woman who would not, in a thousand years, and no matter how well Herb sang The Green Green Grass of Home on the karaoke, be inviting him back to meet her mother (Benedikte Hansen) so soon after meeting him, even with his new friend, a stray Irish wolfhound, as a cute inducement. The mother (Benedikte Hansen) disapproves, a welcome shred of groundedness.
Herb, in spite of having the prospect of the lovely Matlida before him, still has his mad “get into jail fast” plan in play, another bit of plotting that doesn’t quite make sense. Really, this is one of those “just go with it” twists, and Rafe Spall’s performance helps us to go with it, since he pitches Herb as a desperate bloke, but one whose ambition has at least got him this far and, who knows, now it’s been woken, might shunt him a bit further still. As long as he can stay out of jail.
But desperation and passivity are to be overcome, and that’s the will-he-won’t-he plot dynamic driving this very small but very nice film forever dangling a feelgood finish. I’ve seen Denmark described as being somehow about mental illness, but I couldn’t see it myself. Instead, love and redemption to one side, it seemed to be more about the expectations of people who live in “left behind” Britain, and the effect that has on their motivation, especially when compared to the comparatively lush life of the average Dane.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021