Following its acclaimed North American debut at the Calgary International Film Festival in 2019, One Way to Denmark from director Adrian Shergold has finally released on VOD and is proving itself to be a dark horse among award-worthy film selections in a time when many feel a little bit like a fish out of water. But while such sentiments can propel us into seeking the nearest ocean for belonging, it's often those with the most exceptional depth of character that only appear to feel disconnected like Herb (Rafe Spall), a down on his luck Welshman who hatches a far-fetched plan to better his life — in a Danish prison.
Throwing us into a bleak lifestyle from the get-go, Herb's life is seen as a real mess. He's unable to hold a job, just lost his welfare, has a poor relationship with his son, and a neighbor who loves EDM. But with his outlook becoming more stagnant after getting mugged outside his own home, he soon learns from an episode of Good Mythical Morning that Danish prisoners have a better lifestyle than he has with jobs, health care and sunny countryside, prompting him to bid good riddance to his neglectful Welsh town. With no money to his name, Herb smuggles himself to Denmark with everything he needs to commit a crime with an unlikely scheme. But when he suddenly meets a sweet barmaid, Mathilda (Simone Lykke), and a lovable stray dog that just won't leave his side, things take a turn in chasing what a fulfilling life means.
Crafted forcefully by sharply framed camerawork, a pristine and heartfelt script, and exceptional performances led by Spall, the 91-minute feature really takes off thanks to its lead. As one of today's most versatile and underrated actors, Spall — already boasting an incredible filmography, including Apple TV+'s new series, Trying, Just Mercy and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom — gives an immaculate performance of a perpetually hapless, almost muted man just trying to feel something other than loneliness while on a steady quest for some portrait of happiness.
While it seems like the world is stacked against him, you immediately feel drawn to his character thanks to noteworthy writing from the screenwriter, Jeff Murphy, and the use of Herb intentionally breaking the fourth wall. Immersing viewers right into his personal mindset and the realities of his life as a way to lighten the weight, this works effectively to interrupt the audience's disbelief, while acting as an impactful device, both thoughtful and personal.
In a role that will surely bring further acclaim and — fingers crossed — mainstream awards glory for Spall, this is most definitely his finest work to date. Rich and complex with a depth ranking high among Leonardo DiCaprio and Adam Driver, Spall's chameleon-like craft has placed him in some major Hollywood blockbusters and films alongside a long list of today's top-billed stars, like Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt and Jamie Foxx. But it's his performance in One Way to Denmark that could very well be his foray into Tinseltown as a fortified lead — especially when witnessing the moment Herb breaks down after speaking about his son to someone he believed was a mere acquaintance. Through Shergold's direction and an apt slow zoom, the scene is one that will break your heart and bring tears to your eyes as Spall captures so much emotion and pain into one scene. It's truly a winning moment and locks in the movie as one of his best performances.
Danish actress, Lykke is charming and fun to watch as she radiates pure charisma as the sincere barmaid with a big heart, who is seemingly trapped in her own prison of grief but willingly eclipses it with a heightened positivity. The chemistry between her and Spall is adorable and easy to follow as they bond over their children and past relationships, with the two slipping into each other most complementary and magnetically. The tender moments of eye play and instinctive conversation elevate their understanding toward one another, creating a grand allure in their attachment. While Spall and Lykke are exciting to watch through the contrast of their characters, their co-stars are just as wonderful, including Joel Fry (Game of Thrones), Steven Spiers (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) and Swedish actor, Thomas W. Gabrielsson (A Royal Affair) in brief but dynamic appearances.
With Shergold directing a compelling, multilayered dramedy of a 34-year-old man trapped in his own prison and one he tries his hardest to escape, there is so much to love about One Way to Denmark. From direct pacing to a strong, believable narrative structure, the movie might feel like a romantic comedy at times, but it is much deeper and complicated as it sprinkles in humor most naturally to complement Herb's damaged reality of being at the end of his rope. Though there aren't any moments of laughing out loud, the jokes are subtle and work well with the overall tone making the eccentric premise all the more realistic.
While there is an echoing mellow feeling to the film with its medium camera shots blended with contemporaneous cinematography, One Way to Denmark is a feel-good, warmhearted film beaming with nuanced performances, anchored superbly by Spall. Through quiet moments of solitude and luminous optimism, the dark comedy is one of 2020's best and comes together most maturely, serving as a powerful, charming reminder that no matter how dumpy life feels or gets, it's never too late to start anew.
One Way to Denmark is a BBC Films production released by Blue Finch Films, and now available in the U.K. and Ireland on iTunes, Amazon Prime and Google. Stay tuned to PopCulture.com for an upcoming North American release date, more of the 2020's best movies, and the latest in entertainment news!