Dir: Soren Kragh-Jacobsen. Denmark-UK. 2003. 104mins

A modern fairytale about friendship, second chances and the unpredictable nature of happiness, Skagerrak is an unwieldy romantic charmer from writer-director Soren Kragh-Jacobsen. Lacking the focus and obvious commercial appeal of Berlin prize-winner Mifune, his English-language debut is the kind of slow burner that worms its way into your affections. Heavily reliant on improbable plot developments and unlikely relationships, it has a quirky, offbeat flavour that should give it a fighting chance as a middle-range attraction throughout Europe. Its very idiosyncratic nature makes global prospects less certain. The lively, engaging performances from the accomplished international cast could prove the biggest drawing card for theatrical and subsidiary audiences.

Following in the footsteps of Lone Scherfig's Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself (also co-written by Anders Thomas Jensen), Skaggerak is further evidence of the growing bond between Scottish and Danish production companies. A shared sensibility and dark humour mark the two films that have mixed Scottish locations and Scandinavian studio work to impressive effect. The flaws in Skagerrak are a script rife with sudden, melodramatic plot twists and secondary characters whose motivations remain murky at best.

A latterday Thelma and Louise, Marie (Hjejle) and Sophie (Gallagher) arrive in north-east Scotland after four months working on oil rigs. They have money in their pockets and mischief on their minds. After a drunken night on the tiles, Sophie is left battered and bruised and their money is gone.

Salvation arrives in the shape of Scottish earl Sir Robert Andrew Lomley (Cosmo) who offers Marie £30,000 if she will act as a surrogate mother for his son. Accepting the offer provokes a chain reaction of life and death developments that eventually leave a pregnant Marie on the run in Glasgow, desperately seeking Sophie's boyfriend and hotly pursued by the Lomleys American vet Ian (Henderson).

Set against the slate grey skies and inky blue seas of coastal Scotland, Skagerrak is an atmospheric and attractive production that asks the audience to swallow the kind of contrivances that verge on the arbitrary. There seems little reason for Lomley's impulsive choice of Marie and no reason why Sophie carries around a picture of her beloved in which the face is completely obscured. There are signs and superstitions throughout the story that tentatively nudge the film towards magic realism but the situations and settings pull in the direction of realistic drama which creates an unresolved tension as to the film's true nature. The title refers to a stretch of water between Denmark and Norway and the name of the Glasgow garage.

The film does possess a potent streak of black comedy and some very appealing performances. Bronagh Gallagher and Iben Hjejle have a warm rapport and convincingly portray the intimacies and unguarded silliness of a true friendship. A manic Gary Lewis has his best role since Billy Elliot, bringing a splenetic comic edge to his performance as one of the three car mechanics who befriend Marie when she arrives in Glasgow. Tender-hearted fellow mechanic Ewen Bremner is a delight and rising star Martin (The Ring) Henderson makes an attractive love interest. Hjejle's beguiling central performance gives the film its heart and soul, holding together a story that sometimes feels too plot heavy and convoluted for its own good.

Prod co: Nimbus
Int'l sales:
Trust Film Sales
Lars Bredo Rahbek, Bo Ehrhardt
Exec prods:
Birgitte Hald, David M Thompson, Tracey Scoffield, Lars Jonsson, Tomas Askilsson, Peter Aalbaek Jensen
Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, Anders Thomas Jensen
Eric Kress
Valdis Oskarsdottir
Prod des:
Anders Engelbrecht
Jacob Groth
Main cast:
Iben Hjejle, Martin Henderson, Bronagh Gallagher, Ewen Bremner, Simon McBurney, Gary Lewis, Helen Baxendale, Scott Handy, James Cosmo