Underneath a placid, conventional surface there's a dark undertow in well-crafted Danish suspenser "Murk." Pic follows a journo investigating suspicions his handicapped sister's suicide may really have been a murder. Although flawed by implausible plot devices, "Murk" could emerge from the dusk as a niche theatrical item on back of its strong cast before attaining an afterlife on cable.

Underneath a placid, conventional surface there’s a dark undertow in well-crafted Danish suspenser “Murk,” co-penned by sophomore helmer Jannik Johansen and prolific Scandie scribe Anders Thomas Jensen (“Brothers,” “Mifune”). Gloomier than Johansen’s debut “Stealing Rembrandt” (also co-written by Jensen), pic follows a journo (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) investigating suspicions his handicapped sister’s suicide may really have been a murder. Although flawed by implausible plot devices in the last act, “Murk” could emerge from the dusk as a niche theatrical item on back of its strong cast before attaining an afterlife on ancillary and upmarket cable.

Copenhagen-based hack Jacob (ubiquitous Danish thesp Lie Kaas from “Reconstruction”) and his sister Julie (Lotte Bergstrom) were psychologically scarred by their seriously depressed dad in childhood. Pic starts after the adult Julie has tried to drown herself, which has resulted in brain damage that has left her wheelchair-bound.

Much to her family’s surprise, Julie announces she’s marrying seemingly kind-natured nerd Anker Jensen (big-boned Nicolas Bro, another Danish thesp in little danger of unemployment). Script slyly hints the family’s joy for the happy couple may be mildly amped up by relief that someone else will take over responsibility of Julie’s care.

But just hours after Anker has given a cutely awkward but emotional groom’s speech to the wedding guests, he’s found howling with grief clutching Julie’s corpse, her wrists slit, in a powerfully acted scene.

Some time later, Jacob stumbles on a clue in Julie’s things that gets him thinking Anker may have been widowed once before. He tracks his erstwhile brother-in-law to a remote rural town, a creepy burg called Morke (literally “darkness” which gives pic its Danish title). To his surprise Jacob finds Anker engaged to another handicapped woman, Hanne (Laerke Winther Andersen, excellent) whose sister, Sonja (Annie Sophie Byder) is just as eager as Jacob once was to see her sister get married.

Although he’s embarrassed to be caught having bounced back from bereavement so quickly, Anker manages to allay Jacob’s suspicions by producing a suicide note written by Julie. And yet Jacob — trapped as much by the town’s numbing spell and a faint attraction to Sonja — won’t leave and worries about his remaining doubts.

The film’s midsection teases with a series of nimble switchbacks, keeping the aud constantly guessing about Anker’s innocence or guilt. Pity, then, that the final revelation is so seriously unconvincing, while the climactic struggle feels off the shelf, as does using a discovered digicam to provide a vital clue.

Nevertheless, screenplay etches provocative ideas about guilt. Jacob is partly motivated by a need expiate feelings of remorse for not being there enough for Julie. Film also touches on even murkier terrain — the distrust of those who choose to marry disabled people, the resentment care providers sometimes feel for their dependents, and the destructive nature of suicides.

Johansen’s atmospheric helming and the cast’s persuasive perfs are just heady enough to distract temporarily from plot holes and hold attention throughout. Use of flashbacks to remind slower aud members about key points, however, slightly cheapens the overall effect, creating a TV thriller vibe.

Lensing and production design stick to desaturated colors to create a bluish, washed out palette. Editing feels a little dragged out, and pic’s 124-minute running time could easily be pared back by 10 minutes to create a brisker pace.

Murk

Denmark - U.K.

Production

A Fine & Mellow Prods. A/S (Denmark), Birdpic Limited (U.K.) production, in association with Danish Film Institute, Nordisk Film, DR TV Danish Broadcasting Corp., Den Vestdanske Filmpulje. (International sales: Nordisk, Copenhagen.) Produced by Hanne Palmquist. Executive producer, Thomas Gammeltoft. Co-producers, Mike Downey, Sam Taylor. Directed by Jannik Johansen. Screenplay, Johansen, Anders Thomas Jensen.

Crew

Camera (color), Rasmus Videbaek; editor, Per K Kirkegaard; music, Antony Genn; production designer, Peter de Neergaard; sound (Dolby Digital), Morten Degnbol. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Rosebud), Aug. 19, 2005. Running time: 124 MIN.

With

Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro, Lotte Bergstrom, Laura Drasbaek, Annie Sophie Byder, Laerke Winther Andersen, Morten Lutzhoft, Lisbet Lundquist. (Danish dialogue)
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