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Mihkel | 2018 Warsaw International Film Festival Review

Mihkel | 2018 Warsaw International Film Festival Review

Of Children and Criminals: Magnússon Blends Family & Estonian History into Nordic Crime Drama

An artist and documentary filmmaker for more than two decades, Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon chose for his fiction feature debut a real-life story of drug trafficking gone very wrong. Mihkel follows the infamous 2004 Icelandic case in which the eponymous hero was lured into making a bad decision, with things only going downhill from there, both for him and for three other characters. Produced by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, this cold Nordic crime drama is mostly story-based with atmospheric visuals, though nothing that really goes beyond what’s expected from the genre. The Estonian origin of the two main characters and the context of the country’s quest for independence give the film an extra layer of interest, though it remains questionable if there is enough there to make it a worthy effort.

The film opens in 1991’s Estonia, where Mihkel and Igor are kids growing up in a country that is just breaking off from the Soviet Union. Iceland was the first country to recognize the new state and for that reason many Estonians later regarded it as a land of hope of sorts – or at least that is what the opening card of the film tells us. Young Mihkel certainly shares that sentiment, despite the film’s attempts to put it in serious question. This fascination also gives him reason to accept the offer of some quick cash in exchange for the smuggling of drugs to Iceland inside his own body. There, he meets Igor and two others, waiting for the capsules to be pushed out of his body (a somewhat long process). The script cleverly plays with genre expectations, seemingly preparing a series of by-the-book plot twists before backing off at the last second. Instead, we are left to witness the inability of the characters to deal with a dangerous situation and a slow descent into deeper and deeper troubles.

The Estonian segment of the story and the recurring flashbacks to the brothers’ childhood also serve to highlight what might be the central theme of the film – relationship between parents and children. All four main characters are positioned in some ways in relation to their parents (or their in-laws), and in one way or another they end up looking for their support. This is in addition to a character who has a young daughter and takes her with him on his criminal adventures, another showcase of troubled upbringing.

Even though the daughter subplot is an understandable inclusion, the presence of children in Mihkel is often used as a shortcut to get emotions into the mix or humanize characters who would otherwise prove difficult to access. The fact that the rather kitschy flashbacks are always Instagram-ready while the rest of the film is cold and mostly shot in a blueish palette punctuated by yellow street lights doesn’t help the case. The film uses genre-typical, elegant camera movements around its hip locations, while reserving a more austere style for shooting the less glamorous environments – in other words following where the plot leads in a stylistically neutral manner.

Despite its shortcomings, Mihkel still delivers a quality crime drama with interesting plot development and a laudable attempt at injecting some historical and political context into the story – and in a welcome change, one that is not about the ties between mafia and politics.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Reviewed on October 17th at the 2018 Warsaw International Film Festival – Competition 1-2. 100 Mins.

Tomáš Hudák is a programmer and a film critic based in Bratislava, Slovakia. Programming at independent cultural centre A4 – Space for contemporary culture, which focus on challenging and experimental art, is his main occupation throughout a year. He is also associated with three other film festivals in Slovakia and he regularly writes about cinema for film magazine Kinečko and other outlets. In past, he worked as a film archivist at Slovak Film Institute and his archival research resulted in two papers on local film history.

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