Thomas Vinterberg on Another Round and Mads Mikkelsen
Thomas Vinterberg returns with boozy new drama Another Round. The great Danish director discusses his country's binge drinking culture, why some of our greatest leaders are massive pissheads and the brilliance of Mads Mikkelsen
When Thomas Vinterberg hears where I’m calling from, some hazy recollections of cobblestone streets and too much whisky seem to be flooding back to him. “I've never been as drunk as I was in Edinburgh in my life – ever,” the 52-year-old Danish filmmaker says with a laugh. I’m braced for some fun anecdotes about his time in Auld Reekie, but unfortunately three subsequent decades have faded any memories that the booze hadn’t already extinguished. “I can't remember much other than getting very sick and that it was a beautiful town back in the 80s.” More fresh in his mind are the drunken antics in his funny and rather moving new film, Another Round, which sees four listless high school teachers experiment with maintaining a low-level alcohol buzz to keep their midlife ennui at bay.
If you’re expecting the kind of moralising substance abuse melodrama that Hollywood regularly churns out, forget it. This is one movie about alcoholism where you might be tempted to have a tipple by the closing credits. “This whole project started as a celebration of alcohol,” says Vinterberg. “We wanted to acknowledge the fact that great world leaders have made their most important decisions under the influence. And if you look at the world of arts and literature, it's massive how well the great drinkers have been doing.” Tchaikovsky and Hemingway are just two talented boozehounds that the four teachers cite during their scheme, as well as the UK’s very own alkie-in-chief: Churchill. “We can't ignore that at the moment when Churchill sent a couple of hundred thousand civilian people into war on fishing boats, he was probably drunk – or at least he wasn't sober.”
Another Round explores Denmark’s very specific drinking culture, but some of its sentiments should chime with readers here in Scotland. The film’s Danish title is Druk, which literally translates to Binge Drinking. The more cosy sounding Another Round was adopted as the international title, however, presumably because the phenomenon of binge drinking is typically a northern European pursuit. Vinterberg bristles, though, when I suggest both countries might have a complicated relationship with booze. “You're calling it a complicated relationship; I'm calling it an uncomplicated one,” he says. “At least we don't hide it. You see alcohol all over the streets in both countries? It's out in the open here?”
Why does he reckon countries like Denmark and Scotland have embraced boozing to total annihilation on nights out, while our neighbours in southern Europe and across the pond have more responsible drinking cultures? “I don't know how it is in your country, but in my country, there's a double edge," muses Vinterberg. "Danes feel we live in a slightly provincial, modest, even, at times, mediocre, slightly oppressive society. And yet still we can transform into crazy Vikings that go absolutely bazonkers. So there's a duality and I think those two sides depend on each other.”
At the heart of the film is Martin (played by Mads Mikkelsen), a once-brilliant history teacher who now bores his students with his stuttering, half-hearted lessons. His wife and children find him similarly tedious. However, a few shots of vodka for breakfast – bringing his blood-alcohol level to 0.05%, which he maintains throughout the working day by continual drinking – and he’s a new man. Sophisticated ideas flow freely in class while at home he’s a right laugh at the dinner table and a smooth lover in the bedroom.
It’s a subtle and precise performance, and not the only great turn by Mads Mikkelsen on UK screens this month. He’s also in gruff Charles Bronson mode as a hard-as-nails soldier out to avenge the death of his wife in Anders Thomas Jensen’s comedy-drama Riders of Justice.
This versatility is typical of Mikkelsen. After all, there aren’t many performers today who could pull off playing a brutish one-eyed Norse warrior (Valhalla Rising), a calculating bond villain (Casino Royale) and a timid kindergarten teacher (The Hunt, directed by Vinterberg), as well as breathe new life into a worn-out character like Hannibal Lecter in Bryan Fuller's NBC series. Next up, he's filling Johnny Depp's ignominious shoes in the third Fantastic Beasts movie.
Another Round and The Hunt are both highlights in Vinterberg and Mikkelsen’s storied careers; they clearly work well together. “Mads and I have a very close mutual understanding of what is great and what is not great,” says Vinterberg. “We grew up in the same country, the same soil, having the same movie heroes, watching the same Scorsese movies and all of that. It's as if we had the same education. So our language is very close. Even in the way I say cut, he'll know, 'OK, we'll have to do a little bit more of that.' I don't have to say much.”
Mikkelsen won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance in The Hunt, but Vinterberg reckons his turn in Another Round is even more special. “Can I remind you how much I put on his plate? He has to be very tender and weep very honestly in one moment; in a different moment, he has to dance; and in a third moment, he has to be super silly and try to find codfish in a harbour in a stupid way. So I've really challenged him. But he's the actor who enjoys that."
If it’s not already clear, Vinterberg thinks Mikkelsen is not half bad at this acting business. “Directing Mads is like working with Messi as a football coach; he can do anything.”
Another Round is released on 2 Jul by StudioCanal
Riders of Justice is released on 23 Jul by Vertigo