Lars Mikkelsen’s made a career out of playing bad guys. The brother of Hannibal and Star Wars: Rogue One Mads, Lars came to international fame as sinister mayoral candidate Troels Hartman in The Killing. That led to a run of English-language bad guys, including blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen in Sherlock and the Russian president in the US version of House Of Cards. Even when he’s playing good guys they have an edge: his would-be politician in season three of Borgen was both an ex-communist and romantic threat, and his international cop in The Team was the kind of no-nonsense man who gets results. So seeing him as a priest in Ride Upon the Storm? It takes a little getting used to.
Mikkelsen plays Johannes Krogh, the patriarch of a family that’s been serving the church for well over 200 years. Together with his wife Elisabeth (Ann Elenora Jørgensen) and their two sons, the divorced Christian (Simon Sears) and the apple of his father’s eye, August (Morten Hee Andersen), they’ve devoted their lives to God. But having such a judgmental man as their father puts pressure on both men – August to live up to the faith placed in him, Christian to try and win his father’s love – and that pressure pushes them to make extreme decisions.
The twist here is that the drama isn’t driven by religious doubt, but by religious faith. August follows in the family business and becomes a priest serving with the Danish army in the Middle East; Christian breaks with the church entirely, tries to set himself up in business, then finds himself in Nepal and discovers a new path to faith – one that doesn’t sit well with his father, who is running for election as a Bishop in Copenhagen. If he gets the position, it’ll confirm that all the sacrifices he’s made throughout his life have been worth it; if he doesn’t it could be the beginning of the end for a man who hasn’t always lived up to the high standards he’s imposed on others.
Mikklesen’s intensity is his greatest strength. You always believe there’s great depths there, even when he’s playing a (relatively) lightweight romantic lead. Having him play an increasingly tortured yet unwavering priest is dream casting, and he takes full advantage of it. Johannes is more than just a two-dimensional angry dad here though: he’s a man who’s given his life over to an institution he believes in, but he’s still a man with his own hopes and dreams – and all- too-earthy ways of coping when they don’t come true.
For his sons, their struggles have more to do with the world around them. August’s experiences on the battlefield demonstrate the gap between having faith in peacetime and having it in the middle of violent conflict – not to mention the after-effects he struggles with once he returns home. Christian’s developing Buddhism leads him down a different path, one that might give him the success he once craved, but isn’t without its own challenges. Whether it’s helping migrants, dealing with old loves, or dealing with family conflicts, this is far from a show focused solely on spiritual matters.
Yet the spiritual side is always there. This is a series that takes faith seriously, whether it’s the characters internal struggles or the many outward ways they show their beliefs. Early on Johannes prays together with a dying man in a scene that shows the core of what his faith can bring to others; comfort, relief, and a deep connection. It’s not something we see all that often in our dramas, and it gives this series an edge to its exploration of issues that in other hands might have seemed just more of the same.
Perhaps the most surprising thing here isn’t that Ride Upon the Storm takes the character’s faith seriously, but that it shares their beliefs. The hereafter and the world of miracles isn’t just something the religious believers talk about: we’re given glimpses of it ourselves. Whether what we’re seeing is being shown through the eyes of the believes or is something that exists outside them doesn’t really matter. This is a series with the courage to take religion seriously: in this day and age, what could be more dramatic?
Ride Upon The Storm airs Thursday nights on SBS at 10:30pm. You can stream the entire first season now at SBS On Demand.