Marriage on the rocks has long been on the menu at cinema’s vast bar, but few recent helmers have managed to mix as potent a brew as Ole Christian Madsen in the long dramatic draught that is “Prague.” The story of a Copenhagen marriage that slowly crumbles during a sad, darkly quirky trip to the Czech capital, this widescreen wedge of underplayed Danish discord is far more resonant and focused than Madsen’s previous export, the self-conscious Dogma slog “Kira’s Reason: A Love Story,” and will be rewarded with fest trips, solid arthouse biz and post-travel shelf life.
Arriving at the Socialist era concrete pile Hotel Praha in the midst of slow-burning marital conflict are the Hojholts, impassive Christoffer (Mads Mikkelsen, the “Pusher” trilogy) and nervous Maja (“Kira’s Reason” star and Madsen muse Stine Stengade). They’re attractive, yet simultaneously tense and wary after 14 years together. The mood isn’t lightened by the purpose of their trip: Christoffer’s been summoned by a lawyer (Borivoj Navratil, from fest fave “Buttoners”) to claim the body of his estranged father, which he’s determined to inter in the family plot.
Their cultural dislocation quickly borders on the comically absurd, and Christoffer begins to have almost surreal encounters with the famously hidebound Czechs.
In short order, Maja announces she’s in love with someone else. Though clearly furious, Christoffer broods and eventually develops an odd relationship with Elena, his late father’s housekeeper (Jana Plodkova).
Unfortunately, they’re stuck in Prague, as the corpse has gone missing on the wrong flight. Throughout his passage from tortured to, well … less tortured, Christoffer hears the same weary advice from just about everyone he meets: “Life is hard, you can’t have it all.” In time, fresh revelations from Maja and the attorney jar Christoffer into a rare — and intense — emotional response.
Focusing in large part on faces, and fragments of faces, in the drama, Madsen uses the rigid countenance of Mikkelsen and the troubled beauty of Stengade — both outstanding — as windows to their turbulent souls. Navratil, who performs a bit of business early on that plays like an in-joke from “Buttoners,” steals every scene he’s in with a mischievously sibilant delivery. This perfectly calibrated balance of chamber drama with the persistent wisp of dark humor renders the pic a throwback to Euro artfare of yore.
Tech credits are pro, led by the ace widescreen lensing of Jorgen Johansson, who also shot Lone Scherfig’s more jittery “Italian for Beginners.” Pic went out locally in late August. Mikkelsen will next essay villain Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale.”