The many faces of the extraordinary, versatile Mads Mikkelsen

The Eon Productions reboot of the Bond franchise in 2006 with Casino Royale was a tremendous hit with audiences and critics alike. The characters were all memorable, not just Daniel Craig’s rugged version of the superspy, but also Jeffrey Wright’s empathetic CIA operative Felix Leiter, Eva Green’s intelligent and enigmatic femme fatale Vesper Lynd, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, the unforgettable villain who uses a platinum-plated inhaler and weeps blood out of a damaged left eye.

This was my first sighting of Mads Mikkelsen, and during the ensuing 15 years, he has emerged as one of my favourite international actors. His high cheekbones, square jawline, distinctive overbite and downturned mouth combine to form a striking visage, which would make it challenging for an actor to disappear into a character. But that’s exactly what he has done, covering the spectrum from heroes to villains, from hyper-confident to vulnerable protagonists, with equal verisimilitude (although one must say, they all seem to embody Mikkelsen’s innate stoicism). Having initially built his career in the Danish independent film scene, he branched out into mainstream American, French and German studio productions, while regularly returning to strong roles in Denmark. The range of genres he has appeared in include crime thrillers, black comedies, family dramas, historical dramas (several), revenge thrillers, a western, a Marvel superhero film, a Star Wars film, a Bond film, a Rihanna music video (Bitch Better Have My Money), besides lending his voice to an animation film, appearing via motion capture in a video game (Death Stranding) and headlining the popular the horror-thriller TV series Hannibal.

Mikkelsen’s body of work has been widely recognized and celebrated. Nominated 12 times as Best Actor and winning thrice at the Danish Academy (Robert) Awards, most recently this year for Another Round. Winner for Best Actor at Cannes in 2012 for The Hunt. Nominated for Best Actor at the Cesar Awards for 2013’s Michael Kohlhaas. Nominated for his first BAFTA award for Another Round.

Having recently watched his debut film Pusher (1996) and his latest two films, Another Round and Riders of Justice, I felt this was a good time to pay tribute to this amazing actor and list out my favourite performances of his 25 year career.

Pusher (1996): This landmark cult film was Mikkelsen’s feature film acting debut and also the first directorial effort of acclaimed filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. Mikkelsen plays a supporting role as Tonny, a partner and confidante to drug dealer Frank. With a shaven head bearing the tattoo RESPECT and his hyperactive behaviour, Mikkelsen made an immediate impression, in spite of his limited screen time. The film itself is engrossing, revolving around the increasingly desperate efforts of Frank to stay one step ahead of a fellow gangster looking to recover the money he is owed (not that dissimilar thematically to Uncut Gems). Over the years, the film proved to be such a cultural milestone that Mikkelsen teamed up with the director eight years later to play the lead role in Pusher II.

Mikkelsen as Tonny, alongside lead actor Kim Bodnia in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher (1996)

Open Hearts (2002): This is the first of Mikkelsen’s two collaborations with Danish director Susanne Bier, who herself has gone on to a successful international career with hits like the Netflix thriller Bird Box and acclaimed mini-series The Night Manager and The Undoing. Open Hearts is a Dogme 95 film, filmed according to the “Vow of Chastity” manifesto co-signed by Danish filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier in March 1995, requiring Dogme films to be shot on location using handheld cameras without the use of artificial lighting, props or added music. The Dogme 95 movement lasted only 10 years, producing 30+ films, but it was hugely influential and served as a launchpad for many respected Danish directors. Open Hearts tells an uncomfortably realistic story of the impact a car accident has on the lives of two families (although the ending does feel like a copout). This is perhaps the most down-to-earth on-screen role that Mikkelsen has played, all the more accentuated by the stripped-down filmmaking.

  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Winner Best Film, Nominee Best Director

After the Wedding (2006): Mikkelsen’s second film with Susanne Bier is a complex family drama, involving secrets and lies, confessions and reconciliations. Mikkelsen plays the manager of a cash-strapped orphanage in India, who is travels back to Denmark to receive a substantial donation from a mysterious benefactor. On arrival, he discovers that there is an ulterior motive to the donation, as events from his own past catch up with him. It remains one of Bier’s most beloved films till date. Co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen has since gone on to become one of Denmark’s most popular actresses, gaining international fame as Prime Minister Nyborg in the TV series Borgen.

  • Oscars: Nominee Best Foreign Film
  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Best Film and Best Screenplay
Mikkelsen as orphanage manager Jacob Pedersen with co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen in Susanne Bier’s After The Wedding (2006)

Casino Royale (2006): This film was Mikkelsen’s international breakout role just as much as it was Daniel Craig’s. The casino scene involving Le Chiffre and Bond is riveting even though I don’t have a clue regarding the rules of the game. I loved the little details, like Mikkelsen shuffling a pair of chips in his right hand while concentrating on the game. Later in the film, the two meet again, this time far removed from the trappings of civilized behaviour, in a primal and brutal torture scene…perhaps the first time that Bond has been so vulnerable on-screen. One of the all-time great Bond films.

Flame & Citron (2008): This historical drama presents a fictionalized version of the efforts of two Danish resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of Denmark in World War II. The pair, played by Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen, went by the Danish code names Flammen and Citronen respectively. The film attracted a lot of attention due to the subject matter and questions of historical accuracy, but the quality of the acting, the screenplay, the outstanding production values and the noir-like visual style was never in question. As can be expected in stories of this sort, the characters meet a tragic though heroic end.

  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Supporting Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Best Film and Best Screenplay

Valhalla Rising (2009): Mikkelsen and Nicolas Winding Refn’s fourth collaboration is an adventure film set in 1096 AD. Mikkelsen plays a Norse warrior named One-Eye who escapes imprisonment and embarks on a Crusade to the Holy Lands, but instead lands up in a mysterious country. It’s not a conventional action movie, instead employing a stream-of-consciousness narrative giving it the feel of an experimental film, and therefore not a commercial success. It nevertheless fed the art-house reputations of both actor and filmmaker, and is considered an important entry in their resumes.

  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Best Screenplay
Mikkelsen as Norse warrior One-Eye in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009)

A Royal Affair (2012): Based on true events, Mikkelsen plays German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, who served at the court of the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark and had an ill-fated affair with Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander). For a period of time, his relationship with the Queen and his influence over the king gave him unprecedented power. He was appointed Royal Advisor and enacted a number of progressive reforms including the abolition of torture and censorship. But eventually, other power brokers in the court uncovered the royal affair and conspired to have Struensee beheaded. This lavishly produced period film, fired by the on-screen chemistry between Mikkelsen and Vikander, was a hit with critics and served as a launchpad for Alicia Vikander’s international film career.

  • Oscars: Nominee Best Foreign Film
  • Berlin Film Festival: Nominee Golden Bear
  • César Awards: Nominee Best Foreign Film
  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Winner Best Director, Nominee Best Film and Best Screenplay
Alicia Vikander (as Queen Caroline) and Mikkelsen as Royal physician Struensee in Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (2012)

The Hunt (2012): Thomas Vinterberg directs this searing story of Lucas, a divorced school teacher wrongly accused of child molestation, and the resultant havoc this plays on the lives of all concerned. The situation is made even worse by the fact that the child is the daughter of his best friend. Overnight, Lucas loses his job and becomes a pariah in the small community, as he struggles to prove his innocence. Will anyone believe him or stand by him? What would each of us do in a similar situation? This thought-provoking film provides no easy answers. Needless to say, Mikkelsen’s performance as he experiences hurt, confusion, frustration and eventually rage, is outstanding and won him international acclaim.

  • Oscars: Nominee Best Foreign Film
  • Cannes: Winner Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Palm d’Or
  • Danish Academy Awards: Winner Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Winner Best Director and Best Screenplay
Mikkelsen as the falsely accused kindergarten teacher Lucas in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (2012)

Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013): Think of this film as the German version of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart or Liam Neeson’s Rob Roy. Based on true events from the 16th century, Mikkelsen plays Kohlhaas, a well-off horse dealer whose horses are seized by a local baron, while he’s on his way to market. Not a man to suffer an injustice, Kohlhaas petitions the authorities for compensation and the safe return of his horses. But this only enrages the baron even more and leads to tragic events. Kohlhaas decides to take the law into his own hands and rounds up his loyal followers to launch an attack on the baron and his men, leading to more death and the eventual intervention of authorities. Kohlhaas eventually gets his compensation, but at great personal cost. Although the subject matter is gripping and the locales and cinematography are impressive, film itself is less than the sum of its parts, mainly due to some poor editing in the middle section and wooden acting by some of the supporting cast (including the great Bruno Ganz). Mikkelsen, as always, is outstanding and he looks great to boot (his hair should be officially accorded the status of a special effect!).

  • Cannes: Nominee Palm d’Or
  • César Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen
Mikkelsen plays the title role in Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013), directed by Arnaud des Pallieres

The Salvation (2014): This Danish-produced western is among Mikkelsen’s most conventional films, following the story of revenge that we’ve seen in many Westerns over the years (like Kirk Douglas’ Last Train from Gun Hill). Mikkelsen plays a former Danish soldier who emigrated to the US Midwest in the 1860s, and some years later has a fateful encounter with the brother of a local land baron (played with typical menace by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). This is a handsomely mounted production, with top-notch cinematography and locales (South Africa filling in for the US). Director Kristian Levring was one of the early signatories to the Dogme 95 school of stripped-down indie filmmaking, and it’s remarkable how expertly he has directed this full-fledged studio-quality film. Mikkelsen’s steely-eyed performance elevates this formulaic film aided by an ensemble cast, including Eva Green and Jonathan Pryce, who are at the top of their game. I found it a very entertaining film, although it sadly had very little marketing support and bombed at the box office.

Mikkelsen as soldier-turned-settler Jon Jensen in The Salvation (2014), directed by Kristian Levring

Doctor Strange (2016): When Marvel announced the Doctor Strange movie, I had actually entertained a fantasy that Mads Mikkelsen would be cast in the lead role, knowing that this was an impossibility. Imagine my pleasant surprise when he was cast instead as the primary antagonist, the rogue wizard Kaecilius. He brought a significant degree of menace and invincibility to the character, making him a fitting adversary for Doctor Strange.

Mikkelsen as rogue wizard Kaecilius in Doctor Strange (2016), directed by Scott Derrickson

Arctic (2018): One of the best survival films of recent years, and shot on location in truly brutal conditions, this Icelandic drama features Mikkelsen as a man whose plane has crashed at a remote spot in the Arctic circle, and must rely on his skills, wits and mental resilience to survive. Virtually dialogue-free, Mikkelsen conveys the stoic desperation of his character, as he fights off polar bears, the weather and bad luck in a desperate attempt to get rescued. An exceptional debut effort by Brazilian musician Joe Penna.

  • Cannes: Nominee Camera d’Or (award for first-time directors)
Mikkelsen as Overgård, in Joe Penna’s survival thriller Arctic (2018)

Another Round (2020): This thought-provoking and bittersweet drama made a big impact at award shows around the world. Mikkelsen plays Martin, a one-time jazz ballet dancer and currently a high school history teacher in Copenhagen, struggling in his marriage and suffering from lack of motivation at work. Likewise, his three long-term teaching colleagues are looking for something to bring the spark back into their lives. One of them mentions a theory of real-life psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who has posited that maintaining a constant Blood Alcohol Content of 0.05 leads to improved creativity and reduced stress. The four men decide to test this hypothesis, initially leading to promising results, before matters start to unravel leading to unfortunate situations and a tragedy. The film is notable for its closing scene in which Martin rolls back the years and launches into an impromptu freeform dance during the high school graduation celebration (leveraging Mikkelsen’s real-life training at the Gothenburg Ballet Academy and the Martha Graham Dance company followed by a career in his 20s as a professional dancer).

  • Oscars: Winner Best International Film, Nominee Best Director
  • César Awards: Winner Best Foreign Film
  • Danish Academy Awards: Winner Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Winner Best Film, Director and Screenplay
Mikkelsen’s high school teacher Martin rediscovers his mojo in Another Round (2020), directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Riders of Justice (2020): Two months after the release of Another Round, Mikkelsen was back in theatres again in this revenge-thriller featuring elements of black comedy. Mikkelsen plays Markus, a peacekeeping soldier posted in Afghanistan, who returns to Denmark when his wife is killed in a subway accident. When he is presented with evidence by a group of statisticians that the accident was actually a planned murder to eliminate a witness in a case against a motorbike gang named Riders of Justice, he decides to take the law into his own hands. The statisticians use their hacking skills to uncover the movements of the gang leaders, so that Markus can plan an attack to take them out. What follows is a series of comedic situations revolving around the stark personality differences between the nerdy statisticians and the violence-oriented Markus. This improbable storyline is pulled off convincingly by the director and the ensemble cast, leading to a violent climax and a satisfying ending. Intelligent escapism at its best! Director Anders Thomas Jensen previously wrote the screenplay for notable Mikkelsen films like Open Hearts, After the Wedding and The Salvation.

  • Danish Academy Awards: Nominee Best Actor for Mikkelsen, Nominee Best Film, Director and Screenplay
Mikkelsen as Markus with his three partners-in-revenge in Riders of Justice (2020), directed by Anders Thomas Jensen

There are several Mikkelsen films I have yet to watch; the Vincent Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate (2018), in which he has a supporting role as a priest, the award-winning Danish black comedy Men & Chicken (2015), the French period film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009), the Danish breakup drama Prague (2006) and two of his crime films with Nicolas Winding Refn, Pusher II (2004) and Bleeder (1999).

Meanwhile, this versatile and adventurous actor continues to be in demand with Hollywood studios. He will take over the role of Grindelwald from Johnny Depp in the third Fantastic Beasts film and he will appear in the fifth and final Indiana Jones film with Harrison Ford.

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