Tuesday, 28 January 2014
My Borgen Hamlet
It came to me before the second series of Denmark's West Wing-worthy political drama was out. Nationality had nothing to do with it; I only saw Pilou Asbæk's magnificent acting as the tormented Kasper Juul fit for Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark, Sidse Babett Knudsen's authority tuned to a different pitch as Gertrude, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen's vocally well modulated beauty ripe for the steel that enters Ophelia's grief-maddened speeches.
Any number of fine Danish actors in the series would fit the bill of Claudius, depending on what the director wanted: inscrutability from Søren Malling (TV editor Torben Friis and pictured below with Hjort Sørensen) or rugged threat from Mikael Birkkjær (the now ex-husband Phillip, so much more compelling than Birgitte's new love and 'celebrated British architect' Jeremy, a nasal-voiced blank canvas; let's not even look up the actor). Then there's old former communist Soren Ravn, as played by Lars Mikkelsen whom I find almost as attractive as his brother Mads: he could be a seemingly ice-cold Claudius who goes into meltdown. I'm usually a bit perplexed that Polonius, as the father of Laertes and Ophelia, should be as old as he's usually portrayed but were that the case, then Lars Knudson, the avuncular Bent, fits the bill.
Since I spun that fantasy, the thespian influx has already begun, given our national mania for what is so broadly and erroneously termed 'Nordic Noir' (they're trying to sell Borgen as a 'political thriller', which it only occasionally is, though there's always a nail-biting dilemma per episode). Hjort Sørensen is possibly wasted in Coriolanus at the Donmar - I haven't seen it yet and I'm no great fan of the play, brilliant though it is - while Knudsen is due on stage here anon, I forget in what. Now The Killing's Sarah Lund, aka Sofie Gråbøl, is down to play Queen Margaret in The James Plays at the Edinburgh Festival. It's one in the eye for American starpower on the British stage, and of course it says much for Danes' impeccable English - though my 'Borgen Hamlet' would be performed in the actors' native language.
We've been gripped by the interior psychology of The Killing - well, the first and third seasons, anyway, since the second was ruled out for me by a ludicrous spoiler-identification of the criminal on The Arts Desk - and the rather gorier, incredible scenarios of The Bridge, because in spite of the loose ends crimebusters Saga and Martin make a compelling double-act.
But it's Borgen which takes the palm for subtle characterisations down to every member, in Series Three, of Birgitte's New Democrats. We've been devouring it, somewhat late, on DVD. I love the way each episode investigates the complexities of various issues - in this season, harsh immigration laws, pig-farming, prostitutes and the spectre of communism, to name but four. And have we not all shed tears over - spoiler notice - Birgitte's finally coming clean about her pre-cancerous treatment?
As in The West Wing, we're stirred - unless we're right-wingers, who of course would not enjoy the disciplined liberal sentiments - by the big speeches. I was interested to read creator Adam Price - a Dane, too, despite the English name - talking about how Borgen was never aimed at an international market; they'd be lucky, he reckoned, to get their neighbours picking it up out of solidarity. But of course truthfulness crosses national boundaries.
Maybe you have to watch Birgitte acting out the big what-we-stand-for speech in episode two of the third series, but I'll reproduce a bit of it here. She's reacting to the media pressing her on the group's defection from the Moderates: 'I know the journalists don't understand idealism, but at the core of this is a desire to change the world.' And later, with reference to the Moderates' intention of deporting immigrant citizens for small misdemeanours:
We're passing more bills which border dangerously on breaching the Constitution and human rights. Bills that are the waste product of political horse-trades. They're rushed through because they're too shameful to discuss. The people don't get to have their say and it's not just slovenliness. It's decidedly undemocratic. Democracy is dialogue. And that dialogue is fading out. New Democrats will fight to re-open that dialogue.
Sound familiar? Of course. And that's the beauty of it: how Borgen began by being local and ended up touching the universal.