A review of Accused directed by Jacob Thuesen

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

Anklaget (Accused)
Denmark | 2005
103 minutes, Director: Jacob Thuesen
Screenplay: Kim Fupz Aakeson
Photography: Sebastian Blenkov
Editor: Per K. Kirkegaard
With: Troels Lyby, Sofie Gråbøl, Kirstine Rosenkrands Mikkelsen, Paw Henriksen, Louise Mieritz

The film Accused is about an individual, a family, and a society; and it is about the relationship of fantasy and truth, reputation and reality, and experience and morality. It is a work of intelligence and integrity, vision and voice. Accused stars Troels Lyby as Henrik, a father, and Sofie Grabol as Nina, a mother, and Kirstine Rosenkrands as Stine, a daughter, and was directed by Jacob Thuesen. Thuesen, born in 1962 and a graduate of Denmark’s National Film School, is a film editor known for his work with Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier, and Jorgen Leth. Jacob Thuesen’s film Accused, which opened in Europe in 2005 and was shown at Manhattan’s Scandinavia House in April 2006, has won several awards, including prizes won at the Berlin European Film Academy Awards, the Kiev Molodist International Film Festival, the Warsaw International Film Festival, the Miami International Film Festival, and Best Actor and Actress designations by the Danish Film Academy. Kim Fupz Aakeson wrote the film, and its production designer was Mia Steensgaard, its cinematographer was Sebastian Blenkov and its editor Per Kirkegaard. The film’s central character is Troels Lyby’s Henrik, a swimming instructor who seems grounded, smart, and a little tough—one boy goes home crying after a swimming lesson. Henrik has a passionate relationship with his wife Nina, while their relationship with their fourteen year-old daughter Stine has grown distant, as Stine has become moody and withdrawn, something that has been happening for several years. Is that typical adolescent strangeness or the result of a private trauma? The mother, when alone with the father, mentions that she has begun to get used to having a daughter who is always in a bad mood. The daughter also has been known to lie, and she once claimed that her father beat her. The film opens with the father at work, then moves to a classroom meeting with the father and mother and the daughter’s school counselor: the counselor thinks the daughter is disturbed about something and is on the point of confession, and mentions a story about a princess captured by a troll in which the princess can only be freed upon learning and saying the troll’s name.

The film’s early photography is clear, full of blues and greens, and is attractive without being glamorous. Henrik’s eyes are blue and, primarily, he seems to wear blue, gray, and black clothes. Henrik and Nina, with her shoulder-length light brown hair and trim figure, look like ordinary people—in early middle age, and they are attractive but not distractingly so. The intimacy between the parents is relaxed and genuinely erotic without being pornographic: these are people who like each other and take pleasure in each other’s presence. While the two are in bed, the mother describes her fantasy of being a virginal schoolgirl and having a sexual encounter with a grown man with facial stubble (Henrik is bearded), an experience she imagines she would like and not like. Her husband says that he imagines no one but her, his wife. In a party scene with friends, after the parents are surprised by one of the guests being able to have a conversation with their daughter, who has remained in her bedroom, we learn that there was a period in which Henrik and Nina were separated, though we do not learn why. (Did it have anything to do with Nina having to travel for her job, which involves organizing seminars?) These moments of partial knowledge suggest a past life and unarticulated complexity; and are a nice touch.

The father gets a call at work about a disturbing charge Stine has made to her school counselor, he returns home, and he and is wife look at each other, worried, and it is obvious that each needed to see how the other is taking what has happened. It is a moment of significant though unspoken emotion. The wife says she is sorry, and explains that the daughter told the school counselor she was molested by her father and that the child was removed to a shelter. (Our still not having seen the daughter means that her apparent youth and innocence cannot be used against the father. We know the daughter only by her reputation. One of the inevitable questions of such a film is, How do we come to evolve judgements about other people?) While the two parents rest in bed together, the wife quietly says, I know you have not done anything wrong. She suddenly wonders why they are whispering. It feels right, he says. An outside authority has invaded their lives, and they may feel themselves under scrutiny if not surveillance. Nina—practical, thoughtful, concerned—makes coffee, and Henrik watches her, looking pleased, as if glad of how she is handling herself. Is he too relieved?

After we learn that their daughter Stine has claimed that her father had sexual relations with her when she was eleven and twelve years-old, we wonder if this apparently decent man, Henrik, could have done that or if she is using such an accusation to achieve some other goal. We see how Henrik and Nina respond to each other—in anguish and mutual support—and we see his arrest and incarceration and the change in other people’s response to him as the accusation becomes known. The film achieves a balance of insights into character and situation without any sacrifice of drama; and it is a remarkable model of how drama can be built on ideas and perceptions rather than rhetoric or false sentiment.

Once arrested and questioned, Henrik is aware of how anything he says might be interpreted and used against him. It is interesting to see the Danish jail, which looks clean and in which the inmates get decent meals and conjugal visits. Clearly, while being detained or punished—isolated, movements controlled, freedom taken—the point is not to break the spirits of the men. Prisoners maintain some human rights and dignity: they are punished, not destroyed. “The main character is booked at a real police station,” director Jacob Thuesen told Denmark’s Film magazine in an article by Mads R. Mariegaard (February 2005).

Upon being told that he, as an accused pedophile, would be abused if placed with other prisoners—his food spit upon, his body beaten—Henrik chooses to remain in a room alone. (In an American prison, gang rape would be one of the threats; and death might be another.) Even men themselves accused or convicted of crimes look down upon child molesters—people who use children for sex: most children cannot say yes or no to sex, as they do not know what sex is or means, and only with time does meaning form and as it does so do their wounds widen. The admonition against sex with children can be as simple and timeless as the schoolyard taunt to pick on someone your own size.

Henrik’s wife brings him three dry cakes, knowing he does not like frosting and allowing him a choice of cakes, a small freedom while he is in jail. When he sees a lawyer, Henrik is surprised to hear that his lawyer does not care whether he is guilty or innocent (Henrik will still be provided a defense)—and at one point Henrik says, I did it, apparently to see if the lawyer’s response changes but it does not. Is that legal objectivity, and professionalism, or a fundamental amorality? I was surprised to hear the lawyer tell Henrik that this kind of accusation occurs all the time. A guard remarks on the father’s relatively calm demeanor, and says that in matters of incest it takes two. The husband and wife, Henrik and Nina, enjoy a conjugal visit. The room in which they are in has tan and brown colors, and with the furniture it has, it looks like a motel room. The mood is broken when Nina asks Henrik if he did molest their daughter and she apologizes for asking.

While the father waits for his appearance before a judge, a man makes a comment to him about the mess people make and the father wonders if the man is trying to convey a message to him—a sign of the father’s intelligence and also an instance of humor in the film (there are other instances of humor, some friendly joshing, some ironic). In court, we see the daughter for the first time—and it is hard to know what to think of her, what to believe. Which wounds are real, and which imagined; and which wounds can be forgiven? The father watches his daughter’s testimony in another room via teleconference; and he seems to be in pain. We do not know until near the end of the film what has and has not taken place between father and daughter.

At one point in Accused, the mother Nina says that she and her family have spent much time together but that she feels as if she does not know her husband or her daughter. Nina is forced to recognize that her husband and daughter are not only family members, but that they remain individuals: mysteries. Nina talks about the importance of forgiveness in families, especially the need for parents to forgive their children. There is also a scene of an elegant meal that Nina and Henrik had planned to share with Henrik’s loyal friend and boyish co-worker Pede (Paw Henriksen) and his girlfriend Pernille (Louise Mieritz) before Pernille decides she is too uncomfortable to join them; and Henrik and Nina are first sad and then engage in a desperately fun animal feast.

“I wanted to use the genre to close in on a subject that I essentially knew nothing about. I used crime genre ploys to deal with something that has nothing to do with the genre. I’m playing with a genre that the audience is familiar with to essentially show them something else. They think they are watching a crime story, but what they are actually seeing is a realistic, dysfunctional family,” the director Jacob Thuesen told Film magazine.

Is reconciliation possible? The relationship between parents and children is one of trust and vulnerability—and of power that can be well used or misused. When the father and daughter speak face to face for the first time after the daughter’s charges have been made public, the colors in the family apartment—including shades of brown but also yellow and light green—seem very warm, a change from some of the chill that has gone before, a warmth that is vivid. Will father and daughter understand each other; and forgive each other?

Weeks after the trial, the last scene shows the father asking children to bring to him the help of an adult, a further recognition of the gulf of experience, knowledge, and responsibility that exists between adults and children.

Jacob Thuesen’s Accused is a film of subtle and sustained accomplishment.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett, a longtime New York resident, has published work in American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, IdentityTheory.com, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 24FramesPerSecond.com, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today, as well as Offscreen. The Compulsive Reader has published his reviews of books on or by Louis Auchincloss, James Baldwin, Henry Van Dyke, and Nietzsche, and his reviews of the films Schultze Gets the Blues, In Good Company, Casanova, Tristram Shandy, and On the Waterfront. Garrett has written about the films of Spike Lee, Alfonso Cuaron, Abbas Kiarostami, Eric Rohmer, Oliver Assayas, Luchino Visconti, Jane Campion, Denys Arcand, Bernardo Bertolucci, Lars von Trier, Alexander Sokurov, Guy Maddin, Ousmane Sembene, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others.