Here’s why Denmark’s best export is actress Sidse Babett Knudsen…
PUBLISHED: 17:24 19 April 2017 | UPDATED: 17:58 19 April 2017
This content is subject to copyright.
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!”