Another Round (Denmark, 2021)
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Writers: Thomas Vinterberg & Tobias Lindholm.
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, Lars Ranthe
In cinemas now
Another Round follows four middle-aged male teachers who decide to improve their lives – and their students’ – by drinking to excess. Not just after work but at the start of every school day, and all day long; even in the classroom. It’s bound to end in tears… or is it?
Danish director Thomas Vinterberg has form for taking a subject and mining it for worst-case scenarios, often illuminating the worst of human nature.
In Festen (1998) a 60th birthday celebration turned into the family gathering from hell as old wounds were not just reopened but poked repeatedly with a sharp stick until they bled.
In The Hunt (2012) mass hysteria swept through a community when a teacher was wrongly accused of sexually abusing a small child in his kindergarten class, exposing bitter jealousies and suppressed prejudices.
In The Commune (2016) it was the blissful idyll of communal living being shattered by petty rivalries, lust and avarice, demolishing the hippie myth of peace and love.
Vinterberg goes back to school in Another Round to tackle the subject of binge drinking – the Danish title Druk means exactly that – among teachers and pupils, reaching an ambivalent conclusion about the merits of alcohol.
His message might not be new but it’s one we enjoy exploring through four middle-aged male characters, their ever more intoxicated antics played with sober conviction by an impressive cast led by Mads Mikkelsen.
In the opening scene, high school students are taking part in a race around a lake, in which they must all drink a bottle of beer every time they complete a lap, with points deducted for vomiting. Clearly we’re in a country where drinking is celebrated, not just among the young, but the people paid to look after them.
Cut to a Copenhagen bar the night after, where four of the high school teachers are attempting to match their students drink for drink as they celebrate the youngest man’s 40th birthday. The conversation is maudlin even before the booze takes a grip; these are men drinking to drown their impending (and ongoing) midlife crises.
Through a series of scenes showing them at work and play, we see their sadness and boredom, their loss of ambition and, in revealing glimpses of their family lives, the rifts in their relationships that are in danger of opening into chasms.
Nikolaj, the psychology teacher, has a solution to these lives without fulfilment. He cites the pseudo-scientific theory of real-life Norwegian psychiatrist/philosopher Finn Skårderud that a blood alcohol content 0.05 per cent makes us more creative and relaxed. Next thing we know, the men are putting it to the test in a pseudo-scientific experiment.
I think most of us already knew that alcohol releases inhibitions and improves confidence but anyway… they take to their task with great enthusiasm and surprising seriousness, at least until the booze kicks in, when they become as silly as anyone else who’s drunk too much – monitoring their blood alcohol levels with breathalyzers and checking their watches for last orders so they can stick to the shrink’s self-imposed rule that the drinking must stop after 8pm each night.
This, apparently, was the routine adopted by Ernest Hemingway, who believed he could only write while drunk but insisted on sobering up every evening in order to start each day’s drinking with a clear head.
Other real-life boozers feature strongly: there’s an amusing montage of news footage featuring world leaders – Brezhnev, Yeltsin, Nixon, Merkel – under the influence of alcohol. Back in Denmark, a class of bored and unmotivated history students perks up considerably when informed that Winston Churchill was an alcoholic and Franklin D Roosevelt ran him a close second, while Hitler was famously teeetotal.
The real reason they’ve perked up is that their usually uninspiring teacher, Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), has become far more engaging ever since he started secretly drinking in class from his ‘coffee flask’. At home, too, his newfound merriment has rekindled his love life. Things are looking up… for a while.
But just as we already knew that alcohol in moderation can make us more sociable and confident, so too do we all know that too much is a terrible thing; and not just because of the hangover. Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), the oldest of the quartet of friends, seems especially vulnerable to overindulgence: a sports teacher approaching retirement who lives alone with his broken dreams and an incontinent dog.
Less so Peter (Lars Ranthe), an unmarried music teacher in his early fifties, who seems best able to cope with the change of lifestyle, and psychology teacher Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) – it’s his 40th birthday party where we first encounter them – with his wealthy wife, beachfront house and three small children. Yet none of the four is fulfilled, and all see their lives stretching ahead of them in an endless cycle of underachievement.
Vinterberg has said that he began work on Another Round, based partly on his teenage daughter Ida’s stories of drinking culture among her friends, as “a celebration of alcohol based on the thesis that world history would have been different without alcohol”.
Another Round, and its theme, became understandably darker when Ida, who had been cast as Martin’s daughter, was killed in a car crash four days into filming – not by a drunk driver, but by a texting driver – prompting Vinterberg to make his script more “awakened to life” and shooting the school scenes in her old classroom with her old classmates.
The knowledge of that real-life tragedy runs through a film that tackles its subject in a way that is by turns loud and boisterous, entertaining and funny, maudlin and ultimately sad. It also involves quite a lot of singing, a remarkable bit of “jazz-ballet” dancing by Mikkelsen, and a fair bit of shouting and falling over.
Much like the effects of a boozy night out itself – but without the hangover.