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This Danish movie is shown in Singapore as part of the Hans Christian
Andersen Film Festival, running till next week. I also learnt that
Singapore is the first country outside Denmark to screen this film.
The narrative of this film is simple, looking back into the early life of Hans Christian, before he was an accomplished writer of stories you and I are familiar with (like The Ugly Duckling, Little Match Girl, etc), he was an uneducated young lad looking for his first major break, be it as an actor, writer, poet or playwright.
However, his deficiency was in his formal education, or lack thereof. An opportunity was presented and he gets sponsored by the King to get educated in a school, tutored personally by the school's principal Mr Meisling, and staying with his family. Here he befriends a young servant boy named Tuk, and cements their friendship with his telling of fairy tales.
But with Meisling's unorthodox teaching methods, and ban on Hans Christian's wanting to write poetry, both men clash. It seems that Meisling wants to curb Hans Christian's perceived attention disorder (words cloud his mind and he wanders off developing and writing "bad" poems off the cuff), while the latter deems Meisling too stifling.
The direction seems to be split between wanting to explore the friendship between Hans Christian and Tuk, and to explore the rivalry and resentment between Hans Christian and Meisling. This indecisiveness takes its toil on the overall feel of the movie, as I couldn't fathom which, and was feeling a little divided over the movie's narrative objective.
The production sets and costumes are beautiful, and I could say the acting credible. The pace however, needed improvement, as most times scenes drag, for no apparent reason. There were also sub-plots that could be done without, which could probably improve the narrative, as these plots don't add much depth.
Those who plan to watch this film, don't expect to be watching him develop his well known and loved stories (a narrative track similar to Finding Neverland). Rather, it's a film on his self-discovery, and probably regret, which allowed him to learn, and inject these sad experiences into his tales.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Hans Christian Andersen was an intensely neurotic man, with many
phobias and obsessions. Many people who met him commented about how
difficult he was to get along with. Famously, in 1847 Andersen stayed
with Charles Dickens's family in London for six weeks(!), causing
problems so obnoxious that Dickens refused to divulge them even in his
Several authors of gay history have claimed that Andersen was homosexual. I'm unaware of any solid evidence for this. He definitely had a Lewis Carroll-like obsession with one underage actress. From my limited knowledge of Andersen, I would characterise him as too confused to possess a specific sexual orientation. This film 'Young Andersen' suggests a strong emotional bond between teenage Hans and a pre-teen boy named Tuk, but the bond doesn't seem to be sexual: it's more on a Huck-and-Tom level. Physically, Hans is much nearer to manhood than Tuk, but emotionally Tuk is the more mature of the two.
SLIGHT SPOILERS THROUGHOUT. I know very little about Andersen's early life: this movie gets several details right, but I strongly suspect that it's largely fiction. Oddly, the filmmaker shows Andersen's teenage years in flashback, from the viewpoint of elderly Andersen on his deathbed. This decision has no payoff until the very end, when -- apparently at the moment of his death -- Andersen has a Citizen Kane moment, with the long-dead Tuk returning as Andersen's "Rosebud". Oh, dear.
The flashback begins with young Hans already having left his Danish peasant village for Copenhagen, where he penuriously lives in a doghouse! There are references to Hans's backstory -- his parents' poverty, his grandfather's insanity -- but these are never shown on the screen: to do so would have required a flashback within the flashback.
The action is largely concerned with Hans's education (at the king's expense) in a grammar school in the village of Slagelse. As the schoolmaster, Henning Jensen gives a stand-out performance that reminded me of Wallace Beery and Leo McKern. There's a splendidly erotic performance by Puk Scharbau as the schoolmaster's randy wife, and one amusing scene in which she attempts to seduce Hans when he would prefer to write poetry.
I was hoping that this movie would depict Andersen interacting with some of his fictional creations; something similar to what Dennis Potter did in 'Dreamchild'. We do get some semi-fantasy sequences, as well as some realistic sequences which I doubt actually happened ... such as Andersen piloting a primitive hang-glider, and Andersen attempting suicide after the death of his friend Tuk. There are several virtuoso camera sequences: commendably, most of these are for valid purposes rather than merely self-indulgences. I was disappointed by a montage sequence featuring Andersen and his schoolmaster: the action called for a continuous 360-degree pan, but director Rumle Hammerich broke it into several smaller arc pans, probably for technical reasons rather than artistic ones.
The exterior sequences are exquisite, the modern lighting is unobtrusive in the 19th-century interiors, and the art direction (recreating early 19th-century Denmark) is superb, although we get the usual problem for movies set in that period: everything is too clean, and the actors' teeth are too good. Rumle Hammerich is already a splendid director whose career shows great promise. I'll rate 'Young Andersen' 8 out of 10, but I suspect that much of this movie is fiction.
After having seen this at the cinema, I can't help but wonder... what exactly was the point? Two hours spent, and the only message I could find in the film was that Hans Christian Andersen just really didn't want to do anything other than, well, what he wanted to do, not even if it meant becoming the great talent he wanted to be(and famous, apparently, according to the film). Now don't get me wrong; the film isn't bad. Not at all. It has surprisingly good production values for a mini-series(and a Danish one at that). There are some very impressive effective cinematographic effects, like zooming in at an intense pace on people's faces, tiny details to show us Andersen's insecurity and make us feel it with him. The script is reasonably good, though most of it is fiction, slightly based on truth(which makes the film a bit redundant, because it diminishes it from a great piece of film about one of Denmarks greatest authors of all time to a typical film with some historical truth in it). The plot is pretty good, and the pacing is good enough. Only one of the five people I saw the film with thought it was too long, and that was mainly because she, like I, thought it was somewhat pointless. The dialog is mostly well-written, though there are downright embarrassing exceptions. I think the main problem with the film lies in the execution, particularly the way Andersen is presented. Let me cut right to the chase; he's whiny. He moans and whines constantly about his life, his imagination, everything... and the thing is, if someone saw this mini-series without knowing his past(which this doesn't deal with, this only revolves around his teen years, just before he first became successful), they might think that's what he was. If one didn't know the tragic truth about him before seeing this, they certainly wouldn't know after, either. The invention of the character of Tuk removes the point, the very strength of the story of Andersen's popularity; by putting in a friend, someone who supported him and helped him. The thing is, he was alone. For his whole life. And that's what makes his stories so strong. He never belonged. And that's what many of his stories are about. Too few authors write about that, and the fact that this film missed that is an eternal testament to mainstream films and possibly Danish cinema in general. It's not supposed to be cookie-cut, clean and dry. Life isn't like that. Most of the acting is good. Henning Jensen makes Mr. Meisling come to life, and Simon Dahl Thaulow looks and acts the role of Andersen well. Puk Scharbau is good as Meisling's wife, but I suspect she was mainly put in to please the young males in the audience(which she certainly succeeds in doing) and fill one particular scene with the smutty, crude humor Danish films are (in?)famous(and hated by me) for. A good film, but in the end, it's just the typical formulaic one-man-rises type film, made in an attempt(yet another one) to cash in on the poor man's popularity('incidentally', the release of this coincides with Andersen's 200 year birthday). To make it a tad better, there are a few good references to his poetry and his fairy tales, as well as a few bits of historical truth to make it easier to swallow. I recommend this to fans of Danish cinema and possibly fans of Andersen, though they should definitely make sure they know that this has very little to do with the true story. 7/10
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