Guilt is a hard cross to bear, especially when it’s unavoidable. Worse still for Pilou Asbæk’s military commander, it’s deserved. A War, the third feature from Danish director/writer Tobias Lindholm, keeps with the intricate examination of tough situations he’s specialised in, delivering a timely and thought-provoking film. At its Venice premiere, it received a standing ovation of several minutes’ length, earning every one of them.

There’s a dilemma at the heart of A War, and it’s the process of dealing with it rather than the outcome that pushes the film forward. As we contemplate further military action in the Middle East, and continue to ask more and more of a stretched group of public servants across all walks of life, Lindholm steps in to examine what happens when someone faces an impossible situation in a highly stressful scenario.

Asbæk’s Claus Michael Pedersen commands a post in Afghanistan where the Danes have been a stalwart, if often unheralded, contributor to the military effort. He’s a hands on boss, going out on more missions than seems wise for a man of his responsibilities. It’s on one such mission that he makes a fateful call in order to protect one of his men, and is left to face the consequences, both legal and moral.

The build-up to the decision, and the courtroom aftermath, form the narrative arc, but it’s not the core of the film. The impact of war, for Pedersen in the field, and for his family, is the real foundation. Asbæk’s bluff charm and dedication make it easy to believe his men would follow him anywhere. Lindholm also sidesteps the usual pitfalls of the family back home by giving them their own self-contained scenes. Tuva Novotny as Pedersen’s wife Maria pitches it just right, fixing a grin undermined by frazzled eyes. It’s the small details – one child helping a younger sibling with his reading, or Asbæk staking out the ground quietly ahead of an ambush that give life to the characters.

Shooting with handheld cameras, there’s a nervy feeling of claustrophobia, most obviously when fighting breaks out, but also in the brightly lit courtroom near the end. When Pedersen’s face swings into view while at the dock, his helplessness reads loud and clear. Lindholm has worked with Asbæk before, giving him the lead role in 2012’s A Hijacking, not to mention TV drama Borgen. The two have a good understanding, setting and then hitting all the emotional cues in a row. This runs right through to the end when he pauses over the sight of his child’s feet, a bleak call-back to an earlier image he’ll never forget.

A War never aims to be extravagant. Grandstanding is not the order of the day. This is a carefully arranged and bewilderingly ambiguous drama that offers no heroes or villains, only people dealing with situations that provide no obvious way out. Try asking yourself what you might have done in his position, and then ask how you’d rule on his case. There’s no easy answer.

Director: Tobias Lindholm
Writer: Tobias Lindholm
Stars: Pilou Asbæk, Tuva Novotny, Søren Malling
Country: Denmark

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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