Somali pirates seem to be trending within the film industry this year with no less than three movies depicting the exploits of these dreaded outlaws of the ocean. Earlier in 2013 the documentary Stolen Seas aired on CBC’s The Passionate Eye and in two months Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks will infiltrate multiplexes across Canada. In the meantime, if you’re up for an immensely intense psychological experience then get your gear ready to set sail with Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking.
Danish cargo ship MV Rozen is en route to Mumbai only to be held for ransom by Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean. Immediately it resonates like a visceral true story lifted from the front page of a newspaper. What makes it so compelling is that Lindholm’s script unfolds in something that feels like real time despite being a lengthy (meaning over month long) stand off, enabling viewers to feel the angst of Rozen’s seven-man crewbeing held against their wills. Not until day twenty-five, are two of the hostages even permitted to dump out buckets of waste. In Denmark the stern but sympathetic CEO of Orion Seaways, Peter C. Ludvigsen (Soren Malling), assumes the role of negotiator trying to defuse this complex and potentially violent situation with one goal in mind: to bring the terrified men back home alive.
It’s by no means an action movie. One of the more interesting and early-made decisions by Lindholm is to not show the hostile takeover aboard the Rozen. Instead he employs a simpler, kinder verbal notification from an associate to relay the shattering news. The pacing is slow, much like fine-tuned policy and procedures, packed with detailed information on protocol for such situations. We become equally but only suitably acquainted with both the hostages and Ludvigsen.
But Lindholm never loses direction, powerfully reminding us that despite crew and captors singing sailor hymns and fishing together (Stockholm syndrome setting in), the men in control are holding the big guns. To make the situation worse, although visually less appealing, their conditions appear cramped and claustrophobic; very prison-like. Three of the men do not see daylight and fresh air until day thirty-nine!
Some might be hesitant to watch what they think is a subtitled drama that’s essentially a procedural in many ways, but A Hijacking is pretty straightforward, and in many of the sequences the cast is speaking English. On board it’s the language barrier itself that often intensifies the overall difficulty of the situation. Even for mundane supplies, Chef Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk), must request the services of Somalian translator Omar (Abdihakin Asgar). Conversations are kept to a minimum, and it’s only when security specialist Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter) runs down negotiator protocol with Peter advising his people to “think with their head and not their heart” that it becomes a bit more difficult to understand.
The acting is where the emotional punch to this clinically written piece truly comes into play. Malling’s performance is strong and appropriate. It’s not easy being the man in charge of such negotiations. Could it be that this confidant, well-dressed business figure who effortlessly manoeuvers any foreign business associate with calm and nonchalance, may have met his match negotiating with pirates? The promise to have his men home within a week turns into a four month ordeal, and the stress of the situation begins to show. Chef Mikkel, played by bush-bearded Pilou Asbæk, boldly takes on the focal character. He provides a well-rounded performance stretching from fear to frustration to anger and eventually just shutting down. His sequences add a layer of authenticity. In the film’s best scene, the pirates permit Asbæk to call his wife (Amalie Ihle Alstrup). Upon realizing their motivation is to dupe him, he reacts with genuine raw, human rage.
Unfortunately, the work from behind the lens isn’t as visually memorable. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck shoots most of the scenes in small offices or the ship’s dining areas thus limiting our feel for the sets, which might be part of the point, but is still a bit caotic. It should be noted that he doesn’t subject the audience to any sea-sickness-inducing, hand-held camera work.
If all this sounds a bit confining, the art direction on the other hand is finely detailed right down to the human waste complete with the annoying flies. Boardroom walls are spackled with charts and whiteboards tally up impressive offers. It should be noted that continuity on such sets can be challenging for even a seasoned art director or prop master, but Thomas Greve’s production design is one hundred percent master class.
I saw A Hijacking at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and while it didn’t wow me the first time around, seeing it again recently has me rethinking my initial reaction to writer/director Tobias Lindholm’s carefully constructed and intimate thriller of abduction on the ocean. It sits quite a bit better with me now, but I think I’ll give still cruise ships a pass for right now.