If Sidse Babett Knudsen had wanted to distance herself from the role of Borgen’s social democrat prime minister Birgitte Nyborg, she couldn’t have done it much more effectively than in her first film after concluding the Danish political drama.
In British director Peter Strickland’s fetish psychodrama, The Duke of Burgundy – a sort of thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey – Knudsen plays Cynthia, the dominant partner in a sub-dom relationship with her younger girlfriend, Evelyn (played by the Italian actress Chiara D’Anna). “I don’t understand this world at all,” says Knudsen, whose only stipulation over taking the role was that there would be no nudity. “But I am fascinated by it. And the script is so different from anything I had done.”
That sounds like Danish understatement. Indeed, fans of the wholesome and power-suited PM Nyborg might be somewhat shocked by Cynthia’s role-playing antics, but within the slightly surreal trappings of a Seventies art-porn film lies a tender, funny and very truthful dissection of the mechanics of power within most relationships.
One of the publicity stills for Knudsen’s first Danish production after Borgen, the sweeping TV history epic 1864, is also suggestive of sexual role-playing, as, dressed in a corseted 19th-century gown, Knudsen stands on the chest of a prone Nicolas Bro (The Killing). There is, however, little overtly kinky in this curious tableau – it is just one of many expressionistic scenes in this lavish new series from DR, the publicly funded Danish state broadcasters who brought the world The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge.
1864 sees Knudsen reunited with Pilou Asbaek (Borgen’s spin-doctor Kasper Juul), Soren Malling (Sarah Lund’s cop partner in the first series of The Killing and the TV news editor in Borgen), and Lars Mikkelsen (dodgy Copenhagen mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann in The Killing and Soren Ravn in Borgen). Unlike Borgen and The Killing, though, 1864 eschews bleak social realism for something more lyrical, colourful and experimental.
Like those shows, however, BBC4 has snapped up the UK broadcast rights. 1864 takes its title from the year of Denmark’s catastrophic defeat at the hands of Bismarck’s Germany, when the Danes lost forever a sizeable chunk of territory. The war’s effect on the Danish psyche is still felt today, says Knudsen. “We refer to it as the war that really changed our identity as a nation,” she says, when we meet in the Copenhagen cinema where 1864 is being unveiled to the local press. “We were really humbled and it led to us thinking that maybe we should just stay where we are, in our own backyard – that kind of mentality.”
She portrays Johanne Luise Heiberg, the most celebrated actress of her day. “She was famous for playing these furious, crazy women… her Lady Macbeth was legendary,” says Knudsen. “She played many male roles in her younger years, and was considered very brave and very modern although in this show she has a very specific function.” And that function is to be one of the ultra-nationalists urging the Danish leader, Ditlev Gothard Monrad (played by Nicholas Bro – hence why, rather fancifully, her Heiberg is standing on Bro’s chest and haranguing him), to fight Bismarck for Schleswig-Holstein.
The drama’s claim that Danish nationalism led the country into this disastrous conflict prompted 1864 to be attacked by some historians, as well as parts of the right-wing Danish press. The criticism was unsettling for DR; the broadcaster is more used to unanimous praise for its output.
After such attacks you wouldn’t be surprised if Knudsen turned her back on Denmark for a while and concentrated on more international projects – after all, she speaks fluent English and French, and Borgen was as big a hit across the channel as it was in Britain.
Knudsen lived and worked in Paris for six years during her early twenties, and has recently made a French film due for release later this year, L’Hermine (which translates as “the stoat”), playing a juror who catches the eye of a feared and lonely president of a criminal court (played by Fabrice Luchini).
Once again she has shown a keen eye for an idiosyncratic auteur: L’Hermine was written and directed by Christian Vincent, who made 2013’s Haute Cuisine, a droll foodie thriller starring Catherine Frot as President Francois Mitterrand’s private chef. Does she speak good French? “I thought so,” she says. “But it’s been 20 years and I’m pretty rusty.”
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It’s not all European art cinema, however; Knudsen has also been in Morocco and Egypt, filming opposite Tom Hanks in an upcoming movie of Dave Eggers’ existential novel, A Hologram for the King, about a Willy Loman-esque American salesman having one last throw of the dice in Saudi Arabia. Hanks has obviously taken a shining to Knudsen, because she’s also been filming with him in Italy, in Ron Howard’s Inferno, the follow-up to The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, in which Hanks once again plays Dan Brown’s Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon. Knudsen plays Dr Elizabeth Sinskey, the fictional head of the World Health Organisation – a role that is presumably no stretch for a former fictional prime minister.
“We are expanding,” she says of modern Denmark, but she might as well be talking about her own career. “We travel and we explore, but up until now there has been this code of fake modesty we’re supposed to carry with us. We have the same under-doggish attitude as you English people… so in a way, we’re a bit like you. They don’t have that in France, you know.”
Knudsen’s horizons have always been broad (or abroad), and her English is impeccable, even by the high standards of Danes in general. The daughter of a photographer and teacher, she learned the language while her parents did volunteer work in Africa in the 1970s. “I went to school in Tanzania for two years, from five to seven,” she says. “I started off in my mother’s school with a lot of African children – but then I was put into the international school.”
At the age of 18 she took herself to Paris, “Just for a year, to be bohemian. I thought I’d invent myself.” She ended up staying for six years, studying at Lecoq theatre school – famous for its physical performance and mime – and gaining small parts and taking odd jobs to survive (including working in a bureau de change). “I’m grateful for the detour… there was something healthy about being a foreigner.”
“Sidse Babett’s years at Lecoq were formative,” says Lars Mikkelsen (The Killing, House of Cards), who has a similar grounding in physical theatre and mime (his early ambition was to be a clown), and who is an old friend. “She did a lot of improvisation, and her sense of realistic presence is unsurpassed in my view.”
Knudsen returned to Denmark from France to act in the theatre, finally coming to prominence domestically at the age of 29 (she is now 47) in the improvised 1997 comedy Let’s Get Lost, one Danish critic noting her “special ability to capture the modern woman’s uncertainty and strength.” She has made two acclaimed movies with director Susanne Bier (including the Oscar-nominated 2006 film After the Wedding), and took the role later played by Nicole Kidman in Lars von Trier’s Dogville: the Pilot.
But it was Borgen that made her a star – albeit a resolutely private one. “I never talk about it,” she says firmly but politely when I ask about her home life, although she is reported to have a longterm partner and a 12-year-old son. And Borgen spread her name internationally – a name that is pronounced Sissay – as in the French footballer Djibril Cissé and not, as she is apparently called when she comes to London, Caesar.
“I was happy to let her go,” says Knudsen of Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg. “I had spent enough time with her, but now I’m starting to miss her again... that closeness, that knowing your character so much. I had very few days on this project , and I loved the character, but I had no way of showing it. It’s so amazing to have the chance to show your character all round, 360 degrees; I do hope I get the chance to do it some other time.” Perhaps with a new series of Borgen? “You never know. We said ‘no, no, no’ – but people have said that before and things happen.”
‘1864’ starts on BBC4 later this spring; ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is currently on limited cinema releaseReuse content