There is nothing quite like a dark comedy made well. Very often, filmmakers attempting a dark comedy will often try to make otherwise serious fare outrageous and inappropriately funny, and very often are unable to find the balance between the serious and the comedic. However, and I don’t mean to discredit American filmmakers, but it is often that we find the greatest dark comedies coming out of Europe, and one of the greatest dark comedies I’ve seen in a long time hails from the underrated (in terms of cinema) nation of Denmark. Adam’s Apples (Adams Æbler) is a dark and brutally hilarious film that is one of the most outrageously delightful (or rather, delightfully outrageous) films I’ve seen in a long time.
The film is essentially about Adam O. Pedersen, the titular anti-hero, played wonderfully by Ulrich Thomsen. Adam is a neo-Nazi who is released from prison and put into the custody of the friendly and welcoming Ivan Fjeldsted (Mads Mikkelsen), who is a charismatic but slightly sinister priest of a small church in the countryside. At the church, Ivan attempts to rehabilitate Adam, along with two other felons – serial rapist and perpetual kleptomaniac Gunnar (Nicolas Bro) and consistent multinational corporation terrorist Khalid (Ali Kazim). It is here, under the serene and beautiful countryside setting, that Adam learns that prison was nothing compared to the church of Ivan, and that he is much better off being in prison. Ivan forces each of his men to choose a goal, and to ensure that they achieve that goal. Adam chooses a relatively simple one – to bake an apple cake. However, he soon learns that perhaps someone up there is trying to keep him from achieving this goal, and ultimately to fail his rehabilitation process.
Adam’s Apples is a film that does not make any effort to show its Biblical influence – now please don’t misunderstand, Adam’s Apples is not a religious film, but rather a film that tells the story of belief and non-belief, and how it influences someone’s perception of themselves and their surroundings. It is not a falsely emotional religious film that has some sort of message, and if anything, Adam’s Apples preaches against the choir, showing the blindness faith sometimes puts in people. The film is heavily influenced by the Book of Job, which is a prominent plot-point in itself, and Adam’s Apples could even be considered a loose adaptation of the Book of Job, because it is about a man who does everything he can to be a good person, only to have everything he holds dear taken away from him, as some form of test from a higher power, and that his faith is the only thing that can save him. It is a daring premise that mainstream audiences may feel the need to stay far away from – while not outright insulting towards religion (nor even vaguely critical of belief in God), but rather Adam’s Apples gives a completely new perspective to a familiar trope of religious-themed films. It is gloriously refreshing in its approach to how it tells the story of belief, which is something that is very tricky to do without being either sentimental or insulting.
Nowadays, Mads Mikkelsen is the consummate character actor in mainstream cinema – the slightly disturbed, incredibly sinister but endearingly popular European actor, cast in villain roles that cause audiences to both despise and adore them. Mikkelsen was first thrust into the spotlight with his performance as the evil Le Chiffre in the first of the Daniel Craig James Bond films. Since then, he has steadily worked as a dependable leading man in Danish productions, and as the ultimate villain in many other films (he is set to play villains in two of this year’s biggest films – Doctor Strange and Star Wars Rogue One). However, it is interesting to remember that before his mainstream fame, he was just another working Danish actor, and that quality is best displayed here in Adam’s Apples, where he plays the dedicated but conflicted priest who becomes a surrogate father to ex-convicts. It is fascinating to watch as Mikkelsen’s performance gradually changes, and we see a man not only desperate in his attempt to believe in his religious morals, but a man also descending rapidly into insanity. Mikkelsen gives a masterclass in acting, and he knows exactly how to play the role, as it requires an actor that is friendly and welcoming at the beginning, who becomes slightly sinister and cruel, and then finally absolutely insane and unlikable, yet remaining endearing throughout. Mikkelsen is a master at perfecting a performance such as this, and he knows exactly where the nuances in such a character lie. For an actor on the rise like Mikkelsen, it is fascinating to see his roots before his ascension to fame in the mainstream.
Adam’s Apples is worth it for Mikkelsen’s performance alone. However, Ulrich Thomsen is the protagonist of our story – and has there ever been a more endearing neo-Nazi ever put on film? He is delightfully violent and completely insane, but we soon learn there is far more in his head than just pro-Hitler propaganda, and his meaningless mission to destroy Ivan, by degrading his faith, is one of the most tragically strange quests in all of cinema. Thomsen may not give the masterclass of acting that Mikkelsen does, but he is still excellent, and I feel that both he and Mikkelsen deserve praise merely for the many scenes where Adam gives Ivan an incredibly violent beating, which are some of the most violent but strangely hypnotic scenes in cinema – you don’t want to watch, but you can’t look away. Mikkelsen and Thomsen have fantastic chemistry, which is a strange statement considering that the former plays a priest and the latter plays a violent neo-Nazi. I have to also give special kudos to Ole Thestrup, who plays the doctor present throughout this film. Thestrup takes an otherwise meaningless side-character and makes him a hilarious, brilliantly weird quack that steals every scene he is in, which is always great to see. The rest of the cast is effective but unremarkable.
Adam’s Apples is a bizarre film – it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Simultaneously hilarious and strangely powerful, it is a very unique film. Mads Mikkelsen gives one of his best performances to date, and Ulrich Thomsen is brilliant as well. It is a perfect balance of the hilarious and the serious, and while it may not appeal to too many people, it is still a fantastic film that is one of the most undersung dark comedies of recent years. It is an outrageous film that only a renegade European director like Anders Thomas Jensen would have the guts to make. For the pure reason that this is a brilliant and unique film, it is worth seeking out, because it is unlike anything you will ever see.