Aportrait of an artist as a young greenhorn, costumer “Young Andersen” filets a slice of the early life of Denmark’s best known scribe, Hans Christian Andersen. Like the recent “Finding Neverland,” pic probes the darker side of a subject best known for wholesome kiddy fiction. The result skews toward an older kids and up demographic given its trauma-stuffed plot that plays more Dickensian than fairy tale in tone. Made in upmarket TV-movie style, with strictly conventional direction, pic nevertheless sports fine central perfs from Simon Dahl Thaulow and Henning Jensen and could draw niche figures beyond Scandie borders.
Opening in 1822, when titular 17-year-old Andersen (Thaulow) was a stix-bred hick desperate to break into Copenhagen’s legit biz, pic’s first reel swiftly establishes protag’s social gaucheness as he gatecrashes a party held at the home of his friend, pretty hunchbacked gentlewoman Henriette Wulff (Tuva Novotny). Luckily, Royal Theater manager Collin (Lars Brygmann) recognizes a faint glimmer of talent in Andersen’s trite poetic efforts. He arranges for him to be educated at Slagelse, a countryside school run by hard-nosed principal Simon Meisling (Jensen).
There, Andersen befriends sickly orphan Tuk (Mikkel Hesseldahl Konyher). Andersen tries out his first tentative attempts at storytelling for children on Tuk.
But pic’s core relationship is between the dreamy yet willful Andersen who won’t obey the school rules and secretly fears he may have inherited his grandfather’s madness, and the strict but not entirely inhuman Meisling, a man embittered by life’s disappointments and the brazen infidelities of his wife (Puk Scharbau).
Sadly, poor consumptive Tuk, whose constant hacking cough just doesn’t bode well from the start, is forced to take the physical punishment meant for Andersen in order to really turn the guilt screws on the obstinate older boy.
Fittingly — given the way Meisling rips into Andersen’s poetry for its sentimentality — screenplay by Ulf Stark and helmer Rumle Hammerich eschews schmaltz and isn’t afraid to make its version of Andersen an irritating little squirt at times. Calf-faced Thaulow plays the lead as a gangly, almost autistic geek, with an obsessive, near-obsessional need to write whatever the cost. Established character actor Jensen (“Italian for Beginners”) keeps a diabolic glint in his eye at all times, bringing a certain warmth to what could have been a stock baddie.
Hammerich, better known abroad for his producing credits ( “Evil,” “Someone Like Hodder”) than for his direction of Danish TV shows, helms unfussily and ensures every krone is visible onscreen. Well-researched costumes and production design set visual pace, with fine, often candlelit lensing by Nicolaj Bryel.