Dir: Annette K Olesen.Denmark. 2008. 100mins.
Director Annette K Olesen and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson return to Berlin six years after they won the Blue Angel Award for the Best European Film with Minor Mishaps with a very different film, Little Soldier. There’s no trace of Dogme influence in this traditionally-shot, Zentropa-produced drama about a woman who returns home to Denmark after a stint as a soldier in Iraq and a Nigerian call girl who works for her father.
Tackling Western guilt over the Third World, Little Soldier adopts a minimalist approach and after sketching out its basic premise only really gets going about an hour in. Olesen’s neatly precise direction and the presence of leading European actor Trine Dyrholm in the lead should provide for a reasonable arthouse career, however, with festival options always open.
Lotte (Dyrholm) returns from the war in Iraq bruised, traumatised and numb. She went there with the intention of doing some good but didn’t succeed, although what did happen there is not made clear. Weeks later her brothel-owning father (Nielsen) is told that she is back and he contacts her. But when she asks him for money he offers her a job driving around Nigerian prostitute Lily (Brown). Lotte who has had scant dealings with her father (she was brought up by her grandparents after her mother’s death) accepts.
Had Lotte been a man, the film would have taken a painfully predictable course. First mutual disdain and suspicion, followed by a gradual thawing, leading to bonding and an inevitable affair. The same patterns are followed here though the fact that Lotte seems more desperate for human warmth and love than actual sex is a twist on the Mona Lisa formula. But as the two women get closer and Lotte learns about Lily’s past and background, her do-gooder nature comes to the fore and she thinks she can arbitrarily interfere with the Nigerian woman’s choices convinced that she knows what’s best in the circumstances.
Olesen and Aakeson tackle several important themes in Little Soldier. The Western attitude that human trafficking is an inevitable and at times even beneficial enterprise; the estranged parent-daughter relationship; the terrible trauma of returning to normality from the madness of the Iraqi front (a theme which also featured in another Danish film, Brothers, recently remade by Hollywood). And they also detail the old-fashioned European attitude to the Third World, whether that is intervening in wars (Denmark’s premier is seen justifying it on TV) or presuming to tell African immigrants what they should do with their lives, and when they don’t listen, imposing solutions on them which are unacceptable.
These themes aren’t always comfortably accommodated here, and Aakeson’s script struggles occasionally to smooth things out. And although it makes all its points, Little Soldier’s Northern reserve keeps the audience at arm’s length, observing but never touched or involved.
Even the usually formidable Dyrholm is forced into restraint here, only allowed to break out into emotion once or twice. As she is almost in every frame, a livelier delivery would have helped. Both Finn Nielsen as her father and Lorna Brown as Lily are more colourful and give solid support.
Technical credits are first-class with commendable HD work by Camilla Hjelm Knudsen and brisk editing by Jacob Thuesen. Little Soldier, in fact, looks like the anti-Dogme face of recent Danish cinema.
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Kim Fupz Aakeson
Annette K Olesen
Camilla Hjelm Knudsen