“Who the hell is this guy?” is the most common response to first seeing a Mads Mikkelsen performance. Some folks first had that reaction when he starred in the first two instalments of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy (1996 and 2004), but for most movie lovers in the English speaking world, it was his turn as the villainous and perverse Le Chiffre in the 2006 Bond reboot Casino Royale, taking to 007’s nether regions with a knotted length of rope.
“Villainous and perverse” might be the defining, albeit somewhat limiting, descriptors of his subsequent career, with his biggest role being that of the titular cannibalistic psychiatrist in Bryan Fuller’s TV series Hannibal, a sumptuous, sensuous reimagining of author Thomas Harris’ monstrous and monstrously popular serial killer. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe he played sorcerous bad guy Kaecilius opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, and he’ll soon be visiting the Wizarding World as Grindelwald in the third Fantastic Beasts film.
Which is all well and good – bad guys always get the best lines, right? But there’s more to Mikkelsen than the imperious profile and cold gaze that have served him well in antagonistic roles. When called upon, he can be heroic; in the Western revenge drama The Salvation (on SBS World Movies Monday 6 September 7.50pm and also streaming at SBS On Demand) he even gets to play a gunfighter in the Clint Eastwood mould, a Danish settler and war veteran driven to pick up the gun after his family is murdered on the frontier.
In the 2018 Icelandic survival drama Arctic he gets to essay a more stoic archetype as a pilot struggling to survive after crashing in the remote wilderness, a role that required him to carry the film almost entirely on his own, and with almost no dialogue. On occasion he even gets to play a classical romantic lead, as in the period costume drama A Royal Affair ( Screenin Saturday 25 September on World Movies and streaming now at SBS On Demand), in which his court physician dallies with Alicia Vikander’s Queen, with inevitably tragic results.
He is a supremely versatile performer, but at the core of his work are two somewhat contradictory energies. One is a kind of detached, somewhat amused irony that he lets shine through at key moments: picture Dr Lecter’s carnivorous double entendres and intellectual bon mots. The other is a species of mournful, vulnerable humanity, a kind of weary fatalism.
Director Thomas Vinterberg specialises in drawing out both to best effect. In 2012’s The Hunt (airing on SBS World Movies on Saturday 11 September), their first collaboration, Mikkelsen plays a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of sexually abusing one of his young charges, putting the character – and to a lesser but still significant degree, the actor – through hell. In their latest team-up, the superb Another Round, Mikkelsen is a high school teacher in the grips of a midlife crisis who, with three fellow teachers, decides to shake up his life by trying to stay slightly drunk at all times, aiming for a blood alcohol content of 0.08%. The dubious but intriguing experiment has varying effects on the four men, enlivening some and sending others spiralling downward.
In the case of Mikkelsen’s character, Martin, the jury remains out until the final scene – his drinking reinvigorates his career and relationships, but he’s clearly susceptible to going off the deep end. He knows it, too, and so we can get to see those twin energies in competition with each other – the detachment letting him observe his own situation from a distance, and the bruised humanity that has led him there in the first place. It’s a subtle, captivating performance, arguably Mikkelsen’s best, and a clear demonstration of why we’re going to be watching him on our screens for decades to come.
Focus On: Mads Mikkelsen is airing Saturday nights 4–25 September at 8:30pm on SBS World Movies beginning with Another Round . It will be followed by The Hunt (11 September); Charlie Countryman (18 September); and A Royal Affiar (25 September). Start with Another Round:
Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, 2020
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Language: Danish, Swedish
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold
What's it about?
Four high school teachers launch a drinking experiment: upholding a constant low level of intoxication.