Featured image: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Powder Keg. (Courtesy of Route 504 PR.)
Directed by Ole Christian Madsen. Written by Lars Kristian Andersen, Ole Christian Madsen. Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jakob Oftebro, Lars Brygmann. Runtime 1h 46 min. Released Sept. 7, 2021 (in Canada); March 5, 2020 (in Denmark).
In Powder Keg (Krudttønden in Danish), we learn about the terrorist attack that took place in Copenhagen on Feb. 14 and Feb. 15, and the events leading to the day. The film opens with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Rico, a SWAT squad leader, talking about an event. Then, we’re taken back to learn more about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which happened in France a month prior.
This is important contextually, though somewhat confusing at first as it feels disconnected from the terrorist attack in Copenhagen. However, we learn that it’s a driving factor of the Copenhagen terrorist attack, as we see Omar (Albert Arthur Amiryan) in prison learning about the Hebdo attacks. Then, he’s released to the public. We learn that he’s offended by the drawings of Mohamed, and he begins planning.
Ole Christian Madsen’s film is told in a structure where we follow four core characters – the aforementioned SWAT squad leader Rico, the film’s antagonist Omar whose actions drive the story, as well as a laid-off security officer named Dan Uzan (Adam Buschard), and video journalist Finn Nørgaard (Lars Brygmann). At first, the way they’re introduced feels disconnected, but they all converge as the film goes on and the structure of the film makes more sense.
Uzan has some thought-provoking moments in his job search, as he’s told that his Middle Eastern name may hurt him from getting work. That’s an interesting, albeit brief conversation into racism and about people’s names as he refuses to change his name.
One of the best moments for the character of Finn is at a dinner party as he has friends and colleagues over and they dissect the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack and discuss freedom of speech. These are highlights from each of their stories, even if their entire arcs aren’t always enthralling.
With the way the film is told in what feel like “chapters,” I found myself antsy to get back to characters I liked more. I found myself liking the character of Finn best because the dialogue in that story always seemed strongest. With the character of Rico, the SWAT squad leader, his role is an intriguing one as he’s at the end of his rope, where he’s not able to perform well in the field anymore.
He’s what introduces the theme of change in the film; and his fear to do something else in his life. The character isn’t always exciting, but it’s neat to see Nikolaj Coster-Waldau acting in a film of his native Denmark after mostly seeing him as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones and in the horror film Mama.
Director Ole Christian Madsen directs the drama well when everything feels like the puzzle has all come together and feels coherent. With just the dialogue itself, it always feels active, with one neat cinematography trick – by cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund – making these scenes visually interesting as Rosenlund and Madsen utilize reflections. As some of the scenes are staged as face-to-face conversations on either side of a table, one person will lean forward and we’ll see their reflection on the other person. It’s tricky to explain, but really neat when you see it.
Also interesting are some tense moments as Omar begins to lay out his plans – and one of the most intense is when he points a rifle at his bedroom window and he tracks a biker, then a woman guiding a stroller. These set-up moments of planning are some of the most intense moments in the film; perhaps even better staged than the terrorist attacks itself.
While a film like Hotel Mumbai that tracks the history of a terrorist attack feels emotionally charged and intense; I found Powder Keg goes through the motions of a true story. Some of the moments of action frighten, but others don’t leave as much of an impact as they should.
One scene that could have been very emotional felt mishandled, where I had chills when someone knocked on a door, but it loses its power soon after. That’s the case with Powder Keg in general, as it starts shakily and disconnected, finds its stride in the middle as a large character study, and doesn’t really nail the end. It’s an important film to learn what happened, but the film itself sadly doesn’t leave a lasting impression.