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Over the last couple of decades, Danish cinema has increasingly proved to have a strong aptitude for emotive, nuanced drama and intelligent engagement, particularly through documentary-making, with conflicts abroad. This inspired-by-a-true-story feature, from journeyman director Niels Arden Oplev (who helmed the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo film) skilfully combines those two strands to tell the story of Daniel Rye, a young Danish photographer who was captured by Isis in Syria in 2013.
Filmed in a wiggly, handheld fashion – such a signature of the Dogma 95 years it almost feels like a retro affectation – the plot tracks methodically through Daniel’s story, holding tight on the expressive face of Esben Smed, who rises to the physical challenges of the role. For starters, he has to convincingly pass as Rye when he was young enough to be a contender for the Danish gymnastics team, although presumably a stuntman performed most of the acrobatics we see.
In the film, after an injury ruins Rye’s sports career, a shift into photojournalism takes him to Syria where he falls into the hands of Isis, which was barely known at that time. They demand a multimillion-dollar ransom, but the Danish government sticks to its policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
The film toggles smoothly back and forth between Rye’s family back home, scrabbling to raise the money without letting the story get into the press, and Rye himself in Syria. Oplev doesn’t shy away from the depiction of torture and suffering experienced by Rye and his fellow prisoners, one of whom was James Foley, an American journalist whose plight became an international story.
Anyone who followed the news at the time will know the tragedies that lay ahead, but the point here isn’t what happened but it why. There’s empathy for all those scarred by this conflict, even in a strange way for John (Amir El-Masry), the British-accented Isis jailer who makes Rye’s life hell but is revealed in closeup to be consumed with his own kind of psychic pain.
This is another film about a white European mixed up in a Middle Eastern war they barely seem to understand, but on its own terms it’s a story well told.
• Daniel is available from 18 January on digital formats.
Source: The Guardian
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