Unknowingly walking into a screening of “Terribly Happy” may disappoint. Despite its seemingly cheery title, this Danish picture has nothing resembling candy or smiley faces, but those willing to indulge in the film’s bleak themes are sure to leave the theater “terribly satisfied.”
The film — which is directed by Henrik Ruben Genz — stars Jakob Cedergren as Robert Hansen, a Copenhagen police officer who moves into a small town after being ostracized following a nervous breakdown. Hansen’s assignment requires him to replace the former marshall (who mysteriously disappeared). However, Hansen quickly learns that his superior was wrong to say “nothing ever happens” in this small town.
Hansen gets involved in a love-triangle with a young woman named Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), who is trying to escape from an abusive marriage with a local thug by the name of Jørgen (Kim Bodnia). Oblivious to the extent of Jørgen’s power, Robert attempts to heal the broken marriage in order to protect the couple’s young daughter while trying to reconnect to his own child.
In order to refrain from spoiling some of the major plot-twists, I’ll just say that things don’t go according to plan. Perhaps the best way of describing the plot of “Terribly Happy” is to say that it contains the sense of dread in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” while still maintaining the idiosyncratic and compelling characters that the Coen Brothers popularized in films such as “No Country for Old Men” and “A Serious Man.”
The fact that the protagonist Robert Hansen gets increasingly more interesting as the film progresses helps “Terribly Happy” to be an engrossing drama. A brilliant script and an excellent performance by Cedergren help the character shine. During the first act, Hansen is surprisingly likable as he’s the outcast in a town of traditionalists. But this quickly changes as more light is shed on the nature of his breakdown and Hansen only goes downward from there but despite the lack of hope for the main character, the film remains an enthralling character-study.
However, Robert Hansen is merely the backdrop to the film’s dark vision. It’s the town and its inhabitants that drive home the bleakness. In one way or another, all of the major townspeople are corrupt. But it’s not the fact that they are corrupt that hits home, it’s the way that they cover up this darkness. For example, Jørgen beats his spouse and kids in order to maintain a sense of “security” within his family, whereas the town’s doctor or even Hansen use manipulation to hide their demons.
Lene Maria Christensen and Kim Bodnia give respectable performances, but it’s really Jakob Cedergren’s leading performance that steals the show. Other cast members include Lars Brygmann, Anders Hove and Niels Skousen.
“Terribly Happy” is deserving of its Academy Award nomination for “Best Foreign Picture.” For such a modest picture, the film presents more than enough engrossing story-line and great performances to satisfy any movie-goer looking for a quality noir.
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