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Original title: Underverden

D: Fenar Ahmad / 113m

Cast: Dar Salim, Stine Fischer Christensen, Ali Sivandi, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Jakob Ulrik Lohmann, Roland Møller, B. Branco, Anis Alobaidi

Two brothers, two different paths in Life. One, Zaid (Salim), is a respected heart surgeon whose wife, Stine (Christensen), is expecting their first child. The other, Yasin (Alobaidi), is involved with a criminal gang. They appear to lead separate lives, but Fate brings Yasin to Zaid’s door one evening after a bank heist he’s been involved in has gone badly wrong. Yasin seeks his older brother’s help but is sent on his way unceremoniously. The next day, Yasin’s badly beaten body arrives at the hospital where Zaid works, and despite the staff’s best efforts, he dies. Zaid grieves for his brother, and with the aid of one of Yasin’s friends, Alex (Al-Jabouri), begins to understand just what kind of criminal gang Yasin was a part of, and why he was so brutally attacked and left for dead. An early encounter with one of the gang’s enforcers, Branco (Branco), leaves Zaid bruised and beaten himself, but at least he’s let off with a warning to leave things well alone. But Zaid isn’t so easily persuaded, and with the aid of close friend, Torben (Lohmann), he trains to become a better fighter, and to show the gang’s boss, Semion (Sivandi), that killing Yasin was a big mistake…

Away from Hollywood, vigilante thrillers tend to be gloomy, atmospheric movies that focus more on the characters than the mechanics of getting them from one action set-piece to the next. Scenes play out in longer fashion, the interplay between the characters is given room to imbed itself within the narrative, and the action set-pieces, when they come, have a more satisfying feel to them. In short, the viewer can make more of an investment in what’s happening, and in the complexities of how and why. (And they can do all this and still cheer when the anti-hero starts kicking ass.) In Fenar Ahmad’s second feature, the very gloomy, very atmospheric Darkland, the main protagonist embarks on a journey that sees him slowly but surely strip away his humanity, the very attribute that has made him so successful, in his pursuit of vengeance for his brother. It all comes at a very high cost indeed, with his marriage and his career put under increasing pressure, and his priorities skewed in one very dark direction indeed.

One of the movie’s strong points is that even though Zaid is the central protagonist and his motives are entirely understandable, he’s not the most sympathetic of characters. Thanks to Ahmad and co-screenwriter Adam August’s considered approach, Zaid’s decision to seek vengeance for the death of Yasin always seems a little self-serving, as if it’s more important for him to be the avenger out of some misguided sense of filial obligation; what would it say about him if he did nothing? Between them, the script and Salim’s pressure cooker performance point up this emotional disparity, and the usual assurances that the central character is looking to avenge someone’s death purely for the deceased’s sake are undermined from the start. This alters the standard vigilante movie dynamic just enough to make the movie more interesting, and more likely to subvert audience expectations.

Ahmad is also clever enough to make Zaid’s immersion into the world of the vigilante one that doesn’t occur overnight. Following his beating at the hands of Branco and his men, Zaid wisely seeks help and the movie spends time with him as he learns to protect himself through a combination of boxing moves, body armour, and mysterious injections that only make sense when the final showdown between Zaid and Semion arrives. As he becomes more confident and more focused, his commitment leads to a deadening of his emotions. His relationship with Stine suffers as he closes himself off from everyone around him, and even when she becomes embroiled in the cat and mouse game that develops between Zaid and Semion he remains remote from her and their unborn child. Where you would expect him to become angrier and perhaps more reckless in his efforts, here Zaid tamps down those feelings and focuses on the job at hand. By the time he faces off with Semion he’s an automaton.

At one point a strong contender as Denmark’s official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars (it lost out to You Disappear), Darkland has more to offer than a central character whose motives may not be as selfless as they should be. The contrast between Zaid’s comfortable, ordered lifestyle and his brother’s is perfectly illustrated by Yasin’s visit for help. With a dinner party in full swing, and already having ignored his brother’s calls, Zaid is in no mood to introduce Yasin to his guests. He keeps him outside in the hallway and gets him to leave as soon as possible. It’s when Zaid and Stine are enjoying an evening meal at a restaurant, and Semion and his entourage arrive as well, that the contrasts begin to blur, and in an icy encounter between the two men, Semion chastises Zaid for not being as charitable to the local community as he is. From that moment on, Zaid’s world is Semion’s world, and he has no intention of removing himself from it.

All this is aided by, and benefits from, sterling production design courtesy of Sabine Hviid, and excellent cinematography from Kasper Tuxen. Much of the movie takes place at night, and the semi-deserted streets of Copenhagen are used to very good effect, with the lighting providing an occasionally hallucinatory feel, as if Zaid is interacting with a different “reality”, one that has danger lurking around every corner. Tuxen is particularly good at framing the action so that each incident contains the necessary impact, and in the quieter scenes he uses lighting to create and support the various emotional moods on display. Ahmad directs with a firm understanding of how to avoid the clichés that can so easily make this kind of story seem derivative and underwhelming, and he draws out good performances from all concerned, with special mention going to Salim, and Al-Jabouri. There are times when the script feels like it’s going to cut corners in telling its tale, but thankfully it draws back from doing so, leaving the movie feeling and sounding more considered and thought out than expected.

Rating: 8/10 – with its secondary themes of personal honour and emotional neglect firmly established through its characters and their behaviours, Darkland has a lot more going on than its vigilante-out-for-revenge concept might imply; visually intense in places, and packing a visceral punch when needed, it’s a movie that also has a surprisingly melancholy vibe to it at times, something which adds further to the effectiveness of the piece as a whole.