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Kidnapping saga The Guilty asks a lot of the audience – but it's worth it

The events of this smart Danish film play out mostly in the audience’s imagination, building tension with the things we cannot see.

The Guilty is an incisive, smart, twisted noir, and an exercise in imagination: just how much of a film – a visual medium, remember – can its audience render or recreate in their minds? What places can be conjured up and faces imagined from the slightest cues of speech and tone?

For an astonishing 90 minutes, we never leave the call centre of Danish emergency services. Even at the film’s close, the camera pointedly never crosses the threshold of an exit. Our only link to the outside world – and the chilly intrigues of plot – is through a dispatcher named Asger (Jakob Cedergren), a demoted cop awaiting trial the next morning for an incident that’s revealed after many exhausting twists.

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At first, Asger is callous and unsympathetic. This is a challenging prospect, because his face is about the only thing we ever see. Much of the film’s copious strain is built by our witnessing of only one side of a saga. Everything else takes place along unseen highways, in anonymous vehicles, in absent houses and through the words of unseen characters. Those voices can either earn or betray our trust, unreliable when divorced from context, without an expression to match them. The rest is down to us, and the richness of the picture depends on our engagement, our empathy.

That saga, at least to begin with, concerns a kidnapping. Iben (Jessica Dinnage) is in a van, travelling north, desperate and uncertain. It isn’t just the terror of that abducted woman, her children left alone at home, but Asger’s own impotence, too. All he can do is make phone calls – and confront whatever impulse led him to be sitting in that call centre, pending trial. The course of action he takes, a plea against helplessness, is in search of a kind of redemption.

Such an elegant and simple concept has been mined for the screen before, though not always successfully: Phone Booth resolved into hysterics, and the Tom Hardy vehicle Locke ran out of narrative gas down the M6. The Guilty is even more pared down and spare than those movies, yet it still holds our attention.

This is partly because the script is clever and unrelenting, but also because the writers have decided to trust their audience: to let us shade the empty space, fill in the blanks. It’s not often that we’re asked to invent half a film in our heads, after all.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

Video: Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing

This article was first published in the March 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.