Herb (Rafe Spall) is having a rough go of it. From the very beginning of One Way to Denmark, you can feel the almost oppressive weight that threatens to suffocate him. Stuck in a declining Welsh town where the very streets and buildings feel as though they’ve given up, he has little to look forward to. He can’t find work, he lives in a tiny, dank apartment, and the highlights of his day-to-day life involve repairing a toaster for his mother’s neighbor and getting mugged by a group of bored teenagers. You know how Pigpen from Peanuts had a perpetual cloud of grime floating around him? Herb has that too, only instead of dirt it’s a palpable sense of depression that you swear you can almost see.
Then Herb sees a Youtube video about prisons in Denmark, and hatches an unlikely scheme. The jails there are luxurious, with good food, television, and a clean place to sleep. And all you have to do to attain such lush accommodations is commit a crime in Denmark. So really, where’s the catch?
One Way to Denmark is an interesting film, one that is almost entirely carried by the strength of its lead actor’s performance. Spall is fantastic in his role of perpetual sad sack Herb, the muted sense of gloom covering what is actually relentless optimism. He’s at the end of his rope, and he’s making mistake after mistake in his desperation, but despite all that, Herb is still single-mindedly determined to find some semblance of happiness. His character work is fascinating, and the best parts of the film come when his face lights up and you can see the clouds clear for just a brief solitary moment.
Unfortunately, as great as Spall is, One Way to Denmark does suffer from a lack of focus. It seems like it wants to be sort of an absurd, quirky romantic comedy, where Herb is rescued from his despondency through the love of a good woman. But it also feels like it wants to tackle social commentary and highlight how society abandons the most vulnerable among us. And it isn’t quite capable of reconciling the two. To accomplish the former means effectively undermining the poignancy of the latter, and its attempts to split the difference end up disappointing. We never get enough of the relationship between Herb and his bizarrely accommodating Danish love interest for the romance to fully land, and the film is unwilling to allow Herb to crash into rock bottom in a way that would potentially give One Way to Denmark more of a message.
It’s certainly not a bad film. The performances are excellent, and it does a lovely job of building a Wales where dreams go to die and a Denmark that feels full of possibilities (even though both depictions are entirely shaped by Herb’s perceptions of them.) It doesn’t have as many laughs as you might expect, but the ones it does have land fairly well. And there’s a lot of potential in the romance between Herb and Mathilda (Simone Lykke), especially as they bond over their children and lost relationships.
Ultimately, One Way to Denmark is a film that perhaps never reaches the heights that it aims for, or is quite as lovably quirky as it thinks it is. But it’s still an enjoyably gentle, warm-hearted film anchored by a nuanced performance from the always delightful Rafe Spall. And despite its shortcomings, it has moments of hope and light that see it through to the finish line, a muddled but deceptively cheery balm for disillusioned and demoralized audiences who see more of Herb in themselves than they would like to admit. Really, we’re all just a few major life disappointments away from seeing swanky Danish prisons as the last refuge of the damned. Food for thought.
Directed by: Adrian Shergold
Written by: Jeff Murphy
Cast: Rafe Spall, Joel Fry, Steve Speirs