Here’s why Denmark’s best export is actress Sidse Babett Knudsen…

PUBLISHED: 17:24 19 April 2017 | UPDATED: 17:58 19 April 2017

(MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

(MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

This content is subject to copyright.

…not hygge

Of all the great things to come out of Denmark, it’s a shame that hygge, the fad for all things cosy and gemutlich, has taken centre stage.

In truth the Danes’ best 21st century export by far is the superb actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, in the news at home and abroad at the moment for an on-screen career which has suddenly gone deservedly stratospheric in 2017. Babett Knudsen is not at all boring and hyggeligt: she is a wonderfully nuanced and magnetic actor who lights up the screen. A sort of Danish Meryl Streep.

She is the Dane who is very happily difficult to avoid this year, with a hit film (La Fille de Brest) currently on show in France; a new Finnish-Swedish-Estonian epic this autumn; and two movies with Tom Hanks recently released (Ron Howard’s Inferno, the latest in the Dan Brown franchise, and A Hologram for the King, based on the Dave Eggers’ comic novel about a salesman who lands a dodgy deal in Saudi Arabia). Her finest film - in my view - has just been made available on Netflix (but only, sadly, to US viewers): The Duke of Burgundy, a wonderfully strange, funny and clever erotic fantasy about two women living in a remote chateau, known as “the sex film without any sex in it.” (Do not despair. You can get it on DVD on amazon.co.uk for £5.99.)

Born in Copenhagen in 1968 to a photographer father and teacher mother, Babett Knudsen’s success may appear to have come about overnight. But nothing could be further from the Stakhanovite truth. She trained at theatre school in Paris, despite knowing little French at the time, and went on to make twenty four European films in fifteen years. Then came the role of Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in the television series Borgen (the Danish word for “parliament”). The first female Prime Minister of Denmark, Nyborg is a strong but complicated woman caught up in the hellish drama of coalition politics and compromised by a collapsing marriage. It immediately captured Hollywood’s attention.

Before then she might have been best known for a role in Lars Von Trier’s cult film Dogville. But she only starred in the fifteen-minute pilot. The role in the full-length film went to Nicole Kidman. That was in 2003. Then in 2010 she was cast as Nyborg in Borgen. The series was produced by DR, Danmarks Radio (also known as the Danish Broadcasting Corporation), the same people who made The Killing, Denmark’s other break-out television hit about a detective inspector solving crimes whilst wearing a memorably distinctive Nordic jumper (Sarah Lund played by Sofie Grabol).

Borgen was a huge hit at home but surprised everyone involved by becoming an international sensation. Best-selling author Stephen King reviewed it in Entertainment Weekly as the TV highlight of his year and Orange Prize-winning novelist Lionel Shriver is a huge fan. The Danish tabloid BT called it “the best Danish television series in years.” The series inspired national debate on numerous political topics and caused one memorable parliamentary controversy: one Conservative MP, Mai Henriksen, was criticised for proposing a bill of rights for prostitutes which appeared to be lifted straight out of the script of Borgen.

Series creator Adam Price auditioned twenty actresses before finding her. He wanted to find someone who was “powerful but also fragile... not a Thatcher-like woman.” Babett Knudsen is brilliant at portraying someone who is completely in control and yet believably, vulnerably human at the same time. She oozes that elusive quality and has reprised it with a well-received turn in the first series of Westworld, the giant HBO drama about a fictional, technologically-advanced Wild-West-themed amusement park populated by android hosts. Westworld caters to wealthy guests who pay through the nose to be able to do whatever they want once they get inside this fantasy world, without fear of retaliation. Babett Knudsen plays operations leader Theresa Cullen, responsible for preventing the park for collapsing into chaos.

Babett Knudsen is now enjoying a career on three fronts: in Hollywood; in France, where they treat her as one of their own; and, of course, at home in Denmark (where she also had a popular role in the TV series 1864, a costume drama about the war of 1864 between Denmark, Prussia and Austria). Despite now being a Hollywood fixture, she still makes at least one European arthouse movie a year. Most of this year she has been on set in Estonia with cult Finnish director Antti-Jussi Annila filming Ikitie (The Eternal Road). The film is based on Finnish novelist Antti Tuuri’s book which was itself inspired by a true story. (I can’t find an English translation of this novel. Get on it, someone.) It’s perhaps not fair to say that the film wouldn’t have been made without her. But her addition to the cast will almost certainly change the way it is received.

Ikitie, out this September, is being hailed as an important part of the celebrations for Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence from Russian in 1917. It is the story of Jussia Ketola, an American man with Finnish origins, who has returned to Finland after working in the United States and is abducted by anti-Communists in 1930. He escapes over the border into Soviet Russia. But there his problems have only just begun. Details of Babett Knudsen’s role in the film have been kept under wraps but an early trailer shows her lining up for the firing squad, face spattered with blood.

This film is a Finnish-Swedish-Estonian production and it’s typical of Babett Knudsen to sprinkle her stardust on it. She’s becoming the Danish equivalent of Ralph Fiennes, happy to star in low-budget films which might otherwise struggle to find an international audience. Fiennes learned fluent Russian in order to play Rakitin, the spurned admirer of a married woman in Turgenev’s Month in the Country, for Russian director Vera Glagoleva’s film.

Babett Knudsen, however, has one up on Fiennes: thanks to her early studies, she already speaks French well enough to play French (with a very slight accent, which is sometimes explained away by her character having a Nordic parent). One of her most unmissable roles was opposite French favourite actor Fabrice Luchini in L’Hermine (Courted), an unusual, witty and sweet film that is a cross between a courtroom drama and a romantic comedy. Yes, I know. Only in French cinema.

Luchini won the Venice Film Festival’s Volpi Cup for Best Actor for his role as Michel Racine, a grumpy high-court judge who has given up on life until a court case throws him in the path of a particularly lovely lady juror with a charming Nordic accent (Babett Knudsen, mais bien sur). Never mind Altman, there’s a Woody Allen charm to their bungled courtship which is hampered by the judge’s awkwardness and reluctance to commit.

She is currently on French cinema screens playing lung specialist Irene Franchon in La Fille de Brest (also released under the title 150 Milligrams). A real-life whistleblower, Franchon fought the French medical and pharmaceutical system after she discovered that hundreds of hospitals deaths had a possible link to the diabetes drug Mediator. After opening at the Toronto Film Festival, the film has been described as director Emmanuelle Bercot’s finest and the French press have enjoyed calling Babett Knudsen “une Erin Brockovich francaise.” (But let’s not get carried away. Variety called it “intelligent but overly long.”)

It’s also a role not unlike Meryl Streep’s in Silkwood, which won her an Oscar nomination in 1983. Babett Knudsen has won a ton of awards in Europe (two Cesars for L’Hermine and La Fille de Brest; five Bodil awards, Denmark’s Oscars). The Academy can’t be far behind. Let’s hope that when that moment comes, they say her name correctly. It’s pronounced “Sissay” (or “Cissé” like the French footballer Djibril Cissé. She doesn’t mind, though, if we get it wrong. “When I was last in London they said ‘Caesar’ and I sort of liked that. Hail Caesar!”

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish)
  • Become a partner of The New European for a contribution of £240. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook
  • Become a patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook and an A3 print of The New European front cover of your choice, signed by Editor Matt Kelly

By proceeding, you agree to the New Europeans supporters club Terms & Conditions which can be found here.



Supporter Options

Mention Me in The New European



If Yes, Name to appear in The New European



Latest Articles

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

New Ukip leader Henry Bolton named the party's new 'shadow cabinet' today - and what a bunch they are

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Catalonians against self-rule came out in their thousands the weekend before last.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

It might seem quixotic, at a time when Spain looks like it is falling apart, but could the country’s future lie in a union with neighbour Portugal? DAVID BARKER investigates ‘Iberism’

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

ALEXANDRA HADDOW on the Nordic trendsetters who have style sussed

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A second referendum that reverses Brexit would have a "positive" and "significant" impact on the UK economy, which is on track to be crippled by its EU divorce, an influential think tank claimed today.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Making money is no longer enough for firms, say ANGELA JAMESON

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The question, in a quiet voice, came from a woman in the audience at the Henley Festival’s Brexit debate, in a quiet voice: “So what do I tell my children now? They planned to live and work for a time in Europe. What now?”

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Millions of families already struggling with soaring prices could end up being another £500 worse off if Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal, according to a report.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A day of action across the UK saw thousands of people take to the streets to demand Brexit is stopped.

Friday, October 13, 2017

People have been asking me if I know Simon Brodkin, the character-comedian/prankster who interrupted the Prime Minister’s conference speech to hand her a mock redundancy notice.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Angela Merkel’s power has taken a blow in the wake of the German election. Here Tony Paterson reports from Berlin on the new shape of German politics.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Roland Garros had every intention of pursuing a career as a concert pianist. An air show outside Reims during the late summer of 1909 changed all that.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Chancellor has admitted no Brexit deal could leave planes grounded in March 2019.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Catalonian crisis has put Europe, as well as Spain, in jeopardy, says PAUL KNOTT.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

It’s not a stretch to say that the economics of digital advertising are to blame for disasters like Brexit and Trump.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Boris Johnson is desperate to get into Number 10 – but it seems the Prime Minister has other ideas.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

We’re living in the Age of Cool Dad, with politicians obsessed with burnishing their pop culture credentials, says SAMIRA AHMED.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Theresa May has claimed “the ball is in their court” in a statement to the House of Commons updating MPs on the Brexit negotiations. Brussels, however, disagree.

Monday, October 9, 2017

By attempting to quash the result before it was even known, Madrid has made the case for Catalan independence all but unanswerable.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Lawyers have told the Government that Article 50 is not binding and can be scrapped at any time before the March 2019 deadline, it has been claimed.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The deluded fantasies of Leavers must have been inspired by the big screen says Have I Got News For You writer NATHANIEL TAPLEY. Here, he brings you the most Brexity films of all time.

Monday, October 9, 2017

France might be home of its most famous race, but Italy is the country with cycling in its DNA. To find out why, Patrick Sawer makes a tearful pilgrimage to its shrine to the sport.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Trieste, the city which has survived centuries of seductive illusions.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

As ambitions go, Lee Humphries’ is an unusual, if lofty, one – to ascend the highest points of 100 different countries. As he crests the halfway mark in his quest, he explains all to Julian Shea.

Friday, October 6, 2017

PETER TRUDGILL traces the clockwork progress of the word ‘orange’ from southern India to northern Europe, and finds the odd detour.

Friday, October 6, 2017

JUSTIN REYNOLDS on the Thomas Mann novel which tried to make sense of the descent of Europe’s most cultured nation into Nazism.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

In the days before Stephen Paddock reignited America’s gun control debate by raining down rapid fire carnage on the Las Vegas strip, a familiar voice was again calling the shots inside Donald Trump’s head.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Ahead of the return to London of arguably his greatest work, Glengarry Glen Ross, Charlie Connelly considers the craft of polymath and playwright David Mamet.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

As with other such tragedies, the Las Vegas massacre quickly brought out the worst of the internet, says JONO READ.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

They have a new leader, but do they have a new purpose? RICHARD PORRITT went behind enemy lines at the UKIP conference and found a party on the brink.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Spain is facing an existential threat, says JASON WALSH, with the country’s fragile compromise – which has held since the end of Franco’s dictatorship – now in tatters.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

What does it say about the Conservative government that Boris Johnson, a man whose record for lying, cheating and disgracing himself on the national stage stands alone in our political history, is not only tolerated in government, but actually holds one of the great offices of state?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Steve Anglesey rounds up the losers and losers (because there are no winners) of another crazy seven days on Planet Brexit.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

RICHARD PORRITT with this week's big stories.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Now the hype is over, what can we expect next from the king of hygge? As our culture correspondent Viv Groskop reports, it’s time to like lykke.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Gin has undergone a remarkable resurgence in popularity in recent years, with many new brands and flavours emerging. There are some older producers, though, with a heritage even stronger than the gin they create.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

There's good news and bad news for online news publishers: The good is that people are increasingly willing to pay for digital news subscriptions. The bad is that news often takes a back seat to entertainment services like Netflix and Spotify.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Peter Trudgill on a remarkable discovery which transformed the way we think about languages.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jack Lang meets the football coach who has eschewed the English game to carve out a career in the dugouts of Latvia.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

How the 'Flying Finn' dominated distance running during the 1920s through sheer dogged determination more than natural talent.

Podcast

Trending

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter