Less than a decade after he graduated from Denmark’s National School of Theatre, Pilou Asbaek has registered internationally as a compelling and unpredictable actor. The 34-year-old actor is instantly recognisable, whether playing a compromised political advisor in the internationally acclaimed Danish television series Borgen or a jittery and duplicitous drug courier in over his head in the cerebral Luc Besson action-thriller Lucy, but he nonetheless disappears into his roles, revealing the pathology of his characters through the shading of his dialogue and the bearing of his body. The son of art gallery owners, Asbaek has a range that verges on the remarkable.
Asbaek, who has joined the cast of the fantasy epic Game of Thrones and co-stars in the Danish period drama 1864, which is coming to SBS On Demand, as a landowner rendered damaged and destructive by war, is now working with Hollywood filmmakers. In Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov’s remake of Ben-Hur he’ll play Pontius Pilate, while Snow White and the Huntsman’s Rupert Sanders has cast Asbaek as the law enforcement cyborg Batou, alongside his Lucy co-star Scarlett Johansson, in the live-action film version of the classic Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell. If blockbusters are all broad strokes, then Asbaek has the ability to fill in the blanks, to say what the story only suggests.
But Asbaek’s touchstone collaboration is with his compatriot Tobias Lindholm, the key writer of Borgen who has rapidly built a film career as a leading Danish auteur who examines the morally tangled and sometimes unsalvageable choices of 21st century life. Lindholm writes about the edge of everyday life, where it ventures into both the unknown and the headlines, and Asbaek has come to personify young men trying to make sense of lives they no longer recognise. The pair’s most recent feature A War, which examines the personal and professional struggles of a Danish army officer whose call for an emergency airstrike while serving in Afghanistan killed civilians, is now on international film festival circuit, but two crucial earlier efforts are already available on SBS on Demand.
The titular R in the calmly coruscating prison drama, co-written and co-directed by Lindholm and Michael Noer, stands for Rune, a young man played by Pilou Asbaek whose prison sentence brings him to 4th West, a high security wing at Denmark’s Horserod State Prison. As R reduces his name to a cipher, Rune’s precarious position inside the jail reduces his choices until he has none. While Scandinavian jails are often singled out for their liberal philosophies and comparatively good conditions, the tidy hallways and wide open yard space of 4th West make no difference for Rune, who upon arrival is threatened into carrying out a violent attack – “bash him or you get bashed up,” he’s told – by the ruling gang’s enforcer, Brickie (Roland Moller), and the prison is ultimately a place without choices.
The storyline is sparse with background information (Rune may have stabbed someone), while there’s only a single sighting of a family member visiting. The antiseptic old hallways and kitchen workspaces become Rune’s entire existence, and his efforts to find a way to somehow expand them end in tragedy. Asbaek is in virtually every scene, often fearful and acquiescent. There are similarities to Jacques Audiard’s masterful A Prophet, but the focus is narrower here, nothing is transformative. When Rune stands in his cell, his hands extended to either side to touch the walls that confine, the reality of being incarcerated is evident on Asbaek’s face. Rune’s a cog in a covert machine, and when he breaks he’s disposed of without a second thought.
Tobias Lindholm has described the tight circle of people he likes to work with as his “rock band”, and once again Pilou Asbaek was at the centre of that circle of collaborators with this gripping, documentary-like examination of the extended machinations and quiet toll that is levied in the wake of a Danish container ship being hijacked by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa. The invasion of the ship is barely seen, it’s the drawn-out aftermath that the script focuses on, as the protocols and unwritten rules of dealing with the unpredictable captors, who favour satellite phones and fax machines, wear down the shipping line’s CEO, Peter Ludvigsen (Soren Malling).
Asbaek plays Mikkel Hartmann, the vessel’s cook, who is sequestered with the engineer Jan Sorensen (Roland Moller again, this time as friend instead of foe). It is Mikkel’s job to feed prisoners and guards alike, and that innate domesticity creates links that are both shared and exploited by the captors, who use psychological abuse as a weapon to both subdue their prisoners and motivate them to put pressure on those negotiating for their lives. When Mikkel reveals that it his young daughter’s birthday everyone sings “Happy Birthday” to mark the moment, but when he’s later allowed to call his wife he’s suddenly threatened with execution so that she becomes panicked and will alert Ludvigsen. Asbaek, never hesitant to reveal how terrifying and draining powerlessness is, takes Mikkel all the way to the edge, and beyond. He makes you believe that the man seen at the movie’s end will struggle to be the same ever again.
Don't miss Pilou Asbaek in the two more titles made in collaboration with writer-director Tobias Lindholm: A War (airing 9:30pm, Thurday 29 April on SBS World Movies and streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand), and the acclaimed mini-series The Investigation (streaming at SBS On Demand):