Juno Films
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Bille August
Screenwriter: Christian Torpe, from Thorkild Bjørnvig’s book “The Pact: My Friendship with Isak Dinesen”)
Cast: Birthe Neumkann, Simon Bennebjerg, Nanna Skaarup Voss, Asta Kamma August
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/5/22
Opens: February 11, 2022

I would like to have been a fly on the wall in 1937 when the editors of Time magazine, established in 1923, were considering the Person of the Year. Surely Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, would have been considered. After all, her 1937 autobiography “Out of Africa,” dealing with her love for British East Africa (now Kenya), tells a remarkable story of a time that the landscape was not yet cluttered with safari cars with their rich clientele, taking pictures of animals to show to their bourgeois friends back home. Blixen’s autobiography transported its readers with tales of the Kikuyu children who flocked to her farm daily at noon, all of which created fertile ground for the successful movie that followed. Her heartbreak when she had to leave the country, involving the loss of her lover, helps to give the book its remarkable poignancy.

What about the person that Blixen became, years later, having lost her beauty, now using her wealth to invite members of Danish society to her lavish home? According to Thorkild Bjørnvig, whose book “The Pact: My Friendship with Isak Dinesen” tells of his relationship to a woman twice his age, she had become a bitter person. While most educators believe that all persons have the right to become what is best for them based on their talents, Blixen went further. She professed that people of considerable talent should not let anything stand in the way of their artistry. So if a poet showing true talent is married, devoted to his family as much as to his work, that would not do. He should let nothing stand in his way of transcending all barriers. Abandon devotion to people in favor of giving all to your craft. One big exception: once Blixen (Birthe Neumann) began to nurture the talent of one Thorkild Bjørnvig (Simon Bennebjerg), she expected him to be devoted to her—with Blixen acting as his muse.

She put her expectations on the line with a pact, a Faustian one, if you will. If Bjørnvig would commit himself to staying with her, moving out of his house and trusting his wife Grete (Nanna Skaarup Voss) to take care of their son Bo Mikkel Kjærgaard Stubkjær), she would guarantee her protection. Literary people invited to her home to be served by her full-time maid Fru Carlsen (Marie Mondrup) would be available as mentors. She would personally read his poems, ensuring that he would improve to such an extent that he would be famous even beyond the borders of her native Denmark.

Hard as it is to believe, as shown by director Bille August, whose “A Fortunate Man” traces an engineer’s departure from an austere existence to hobnob with Copenhagen’s elite, Bjørnvig packed his bags, at least temporarily giving up his home life with wife and child, to stay in one of the author’s many guest rooms, his typewriter fitting neatly on a makeshift desk. He is introduced to the country’s elite during several dinner parties, with Blixen’s determining that his wife would sit a remote distance. By setting him up next to a charming young woman who is unhappily married, she is unwittingly setting the stage for her protégé to break the pact: to depart from being the apprentice to this controlling sorcerer.

Birthe Neumann dominates the film to such an extent that all who surround her—including the once naïve poet Bjørnvig—to be relatively colorless. Best known for her role in Thomas Vinterberg’s “Celebration,” which features climactic scenes of a birthday celebration that reveals family truths, Neumann mesmerizes. Whether chain-smoking, which gives her pause to examine her thoughts or manipulating her prey like a Kenya lion creeping upon a wildebeest, she can easily tempt her audience to both feel sorry for her as a has-been, commiserating on the pains of syphilis inflicted upon her by her husband, and become furious at the way this aging woman tries to suck the blood of a talented young man and destroy his home.

Less sophisticated members of the film’s audience—if such exist since after all, this is not Spiderman—might say that “nothing happens,” ignoring the power of inner tensions. Those who can appreciate Birthe Neumann’s complex portrayal of a great author whose wealth is intact but whose time has passed, will revel in the story of a friendship with Danish benefits.

In Danish with English subtitles

115 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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