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Borgen: It's spoiling for a killing

Is anyone genuinely gripped by Borgen?


Why do people go on about Borgen and how great it is? Are they genuinely gripped by it? Or are they, as I suspect, deceived by its subtitles and the occasional glimpse of a Poul Henningsen artichoke lamp into admiring something that would have them laughing scornfully if it were in English?

Surely it’s the latter, for by any measure Borgen is very poor indeed: badly written, sentimental, clichéd and above all absolutely devoid of any sense of drama. Yes, it’s lovely that a TV series exists in which a woman gets to be prime minister. But are we really so desperate for our fantasies of equality to be played out on screen that we will suspend our disbelief to the point where we don’t titter when a politician changes their entire Afghanistan policy on the basis of one mushy conversation with the father of a dead soldier?

But I’m running away with myself. This is the second series of Borgen and the story so far is that Statsminister Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is doing quite well at keeping her Moderates-led coalition government together but rather less well at married life; her husband, Philip Christensen (Mikael Birkkjær), has left her and is now waiting for her to sign their divorce papers. Meanwhile, Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), the super ambitious and super principled political journalist, has left her TV station, TV1, and moved to a tabloid newspaper, Ekspres, where she is working alongside her old colleague, Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen), and the ex-leader of the opposition, Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind), who is now its editor.

Finally, there is Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbaek), Brigitte’s spin doctor and Katrine’s exboyfriend. He has a new girlfriend, who wants him to move in. His Walter Mitty tendencies, however, continue unabated. He still hasn’t told anyone the truth about his father, who abused him.

As synopses go, this sounds quite good, doesn’t it? But don’t be fooled. Episode two (BBC4 screens a pair a week) was taken up almost entirely with an exciting storyline about who Birgitte would choose to be Denmark’s new EU commissioner. Should she send an experienced Moderate, such as her bearded deputy, Bent Sejro (Lars Knutzon)? Or should she despatch one of her enemies? After all, as Kasper puts it, “in Brussels, no one can hear you scream”. (Eat your heart out, Malcolm Tucker; this is what passes for wit in Borgen.) Man, I was really on the edge of my seat, let me tell you. I wonder what next week will bring. A recycling plotline? Maybe Katrine will discover that Birgitte – who appears to do absolutely everything herself, even rushing home to make dinner when her children demand a home-cooked meal – has been putting glass into her paper bin and vice versa. What a headline that would make.

Katrine needs a scoop badly. Her evil tabloid boss is straight out of central casting: Kelvin Mackenzie-meets-Mads Mikkelsen. Then again, you can’t blame him for being annoyed. She’s like no other 21st-century reporter I’ve ever seen. It’s a notebook for her, not a laptop, and she writes all her stories v-e-r-y-s-l-o-w-l-y, late at night, even if they’re for the following day’s paper. She’s also, for someone who’s supposed to be ambitious, weirdly obsessed with her spinster status (she is only 31). Naturally, her older colleague, Hanne, who’s seen it all, is a recovering alcoholic who has a pathetically dysfunctional relationship with her daughter. I mean, isn’t this what all ex-Paris correspondents with ovaries are like? Jeez. The people who delight in Borgen’s feminism really do need to think a bit harder.

We’re still no closer to finding out why Philip left Birgitte. In the last series, he got a bit fed-up when his wife’s big new job meant that he couldn’t take some pathetic little job – and the next thing you know, he was out the door. This is a pity, because he is very sexy (Mikael Birkkjær, you will recall, was Sarah Lund’s partner in the second series of The Killing; Borgen has four ex-stars of The Killing when I last counted, which, for the British viewer, has an unintentionally comic effect at times). And the one thing Borgen needs is sex. Or death. At an Ekspres editorial meeting, a reporter mentioned an escaped convict. Ooh, I thought: turn the lights off and let’s have a bit of that. But, no dice. We were soon back to Katrine, who was going to . . . a press conference at which it might, or might not, be revealed who Birgitte was sending to Brussels. Dear God. If this is how the middle classes are spending their Saturday nights, the economic pinch is much, much worse than I thought.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.