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'Another Round' review: A masterpiece, on the rocks

Thomas Vinterberg's Oscar-nominated film plumbs the depths of everyday misery while simultaneously soaring to delirious highs

Mads Mikkelsen in 'Another Round'

“The problem with the world,” Humphrey Bogart once sneered, “is that everyone is a few drinks behind.” Danish director Thomas Vinterberg puts that legendary actor and drinker’s maxim to the test in his staggering new film Another Round, where his characters decide to up their blood-alcohol levels in order to perform better. Nominated for Best Director and Best International Film at the Academy Awards, Another Round is now available in India on BookMyShow Stream, and I strongly urge you to drink up.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Martin, a history teacher accused of “indifference” by his students. At a birthday dinner with fellow schoolteachers, he is the only one on sparkling water. This is when Nikolaj, the presumptuous birthday boy, advertises alcohol’s ability to make us “more relaxed and poised and musical and open”, quoting Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderund, who claims that humans have a lower than optimum blood-alcohol level, and that if we drank enough to make up for that 0.05% deficit—two wine glasses at regular intervals, say—we would be better at life. Martin downs a drink. Then another.

Soon the men are roughhousing with infectious glee. This premise—of teachers testing out a conveniently self-indulgent theory—could make both a rollicking farce or a bleak cautionary tale, but Vinterberg accomplishes something miraculous with Another Round, plumbing the depths of everyday misery while simultaneously soaring to delirious highs.

Does the Norwegian cure their blues? This midlife micro-dosing attempt begins with precision, breathalysers in backpacks gauging just how many glugs of Smirnoff can make up the required percentage, and the teachers revel in newfound confidence and vitality. Music teacher Peter (Lars Ranthe) is making his students sing with their eyes closed so he can throw back a drink mid-chorus, gym teacher Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) is leading young footballers to victory, and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), who teaches psychology, is making notes about their “experiment”. “We are not alcoholics,” he says all-knowingly. “We decide when we want to drink. An alcoholic can’t help himself.”

This particular self-help programme is not the answer—though not for reasons you may see coming. Here is a film that refuses to admonish or to encourage, and, most remarkably, to judge its characters for falling short of their own expectations. This is a comedy about friendship, about self-awareness, about ageing. There is darkness, even fatality, but hope keeps breaking through. It is a cautionary tale against cautionary tales.

Mikkelsen is an astonishing performer, his classically carved face lined with years of torment. He plays Martin as a drab man, eyelids weighed down by listlessness. He moves as if half-asleep. The students may call him indifferent but instead he inspires indifference, an unimpressive man diving headlong into the soft-focus pleasures of alcohol. Martin starts embracing this blurriness he finds at the bottom of a glass, or seven. As he drinks, he forgets inadequacies and boundaries, and begins to glide through school as if on rollerblades. He may bump into the odd doorframe but suddenly, despite himself, he has found a kind of grace.

“It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it?” asked Ray Milland about alcohol in Billy Wilder’s 1945 masterpiece The Lost Weekend. “It pickles my kidneys, yes. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I am above the ordinary. I am competent, supremely competent. I am walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I am one of the great ones.”

That tightrope walk is a problem. The drinker may believe himself to be the walker but is in actuality the rope, and needs to be tighter every time in order to stay aloft.

As these men overindulge, careening down a slope they have themselves made slippery, we recognise the desperation of those addicted to their own coping mechanisms. Alcohol is the bottle this film spins, but it could well have been about depending too heavily on religion or exercise or pills. As one who once used to drink past any recommended dosage and now haven’t touched the sauce in years, I see a film about the importance of finding one’s own unique sweet spot.

The cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen involves a mostly handheld style, lurching forward as if the camera itself was slightly sloshed and unsure of itself, and much of Grøvlen’s achievement lies in capturing Mikkelsen’s performance so tellingly.

You may have seen the actor in the series Hannibal, where he played a strikingly genteel eater of people, or Casino Royale, where he tortured James Bond, or Vinterberg’s own superb The Hunt, where he was bewildered by accusations of sexual harassment. This time Vinterberg—an old Mikkelsen enabler, and a man who spearheaded the Dogme 95 movement in European cinema—creates a part that speaks the most specifically to the actor’s talents, allowing him a magic trick of a finish.

A dull inward-looking protagonist, Martin gets visibly looser with each sip, each of his many tiny movements building towards an unexpected and truly sensational climax. It is a performance for the ages. Another Round doesn’t offer redemption or absolution or easy answers, but ends with a dazzling burst of catharsis. I am still hung-over on that end.

“First you take a drink,” wrote Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, “then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” Vinterberg pours out temptingly large drinks and then illustrates that joy—or sadness—may not be inside the glasses at all. The drink is an excuse, a reminder, an asterisk to be placed against your behaviour that particular night. An old dog may not be able to learn new tricks, but it might be just as important to recall old ones.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

@rajasen

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