Hostage thrillers are all-too-often shrill affairs, with clock-watching screenwriters wringing maximum melodrama from spiraling disorder. Not so Tobias Lindholm’s superb “A Hijacking,” which actually grows more chillingly subdued as its nightmare scenario unfolds. A fictional but sweatily plausible account of a Danish cargo ship ambushed by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, which alternates between tensions onboard and in the Copenhagen negotiation chamber, it’s a formidable sophomore feature from the already accomplished writer-helmer. Though not the high-octane genre piece suggested by the premise, “Hijacking” should find itself sailing far friendlier international waters after a healthy festival run.
Though his 2010 directorial debut, hard-bitten prison drama “R,” was a moderate festival success that eventually reached U.S. screens, Lindholm is perhaps best-known for his screenwriting work, having collaborated with Dogma 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg on “Submarino” and recent Cannes hit “The Hunt.” This association is evident in the clean narrative lines and no-nonsense craft of “A Hijacking,” though it’s a more logistically elaborate production than Vinterberg’s work. Shot on location on the Kenyan coast, on a real ship with its own history of hijacking, the pic eschews sensationalism at every turn of its spare but tightly wound narrative — a principle Lindholm, per press notes, terms “reality rules.”
This strategy is clear from the outset, when auds aren’t shown the actual invasion of sparsely populated vessel MV Rozen. Proceedings open on a quiet day at sea, with genial protag Mikkel (“R” leading man Pilou Asbaek) calling his wife and daughter back home. The next time we unceremoniously cut back to the ship, the Danish crew has already been overpowered by a larger, volatile band of Somali invaders.
Back in Copenhagen, mild-mannered shipping-company CEO Peter (Soren Malling) decides to lead the hostage talks himself, contrary to the advice of British professional negotiator Connor (non-pro Gary Skjoldmose Porter, an actual hijack-handling expert, further demonstrating Lindholm’s commitment to authenticity). Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the pirates’ comparatively rational spokesman, opens bartering with a demand of $15 million; when the Danes, as advised by Connor, return with a paltry offer of $250,000, it’s clear we’re in for a lengthy, psychologically fraught battle of wills.
The negotiation process stretches agonizingly from days to weeks to months: As Peter’s team of suits gingerly tiptoes around the Somalis’ increasingly hostile threats, the Danish crew, led by a physically deteriorating Mikkel, begins to fear they’ve been abandoned, martyrs to their company’s stoic resistance. Lindholm boldly decides to focus on the professional rather than the personal, only fleetingly looking in on the hostages’ despairing families. This focus on boardroom politics makes the film a drier exercise in suspense than one might expect, but no less riveting for it — with a stunning final-act twist landing the deciding emotional blow.
All the actors are selflessly committed to the cause; Asbaek and Malling sternly tether the action without resorting to shouty grandstanding.
Tech credits are similarly expert, but unflashy, from Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s shades-of-gray lensing to the clanging metallic echoes of Morten Green’s sound design. Of particular note in a film light on overt action is Adam Nielsen’s editing, which crisply monitors the edgy back-and-forth between the two frayed sides, while conveying the desperate sense of time passing too slowly.