During a particularly striking confrontation scene in Another Round (directed by Thomas Vinterberg), Anika (an immaculate Maria Bonnevie) lashes out at Mads Mikkelsen's Martin for being "invisible" during the later years of their marriage. Anika also emphasises the fact that Martin is hardly ever present and this is what has led to the decay of their relationship.
A lot of classical acting theory focuses on the fact that the actor needs to live in the moment and be present, at all times. How does an actor therefore imbibe a character who's perpetually absent from life, until alcohol seeps into his bloodstream? This is where Mikkelsen's sheer mastery of the mystifying art and science of performance comes in. He shines in this intoxicating tragicomedy, by making his virtuoso-like presence seem effortless and his skills invisible. And this is exactly why his portrayal of Martin is a masterclass in the true sense of the term and should be analysed in the years to come.
Here are eight reasons that this is a performance for the ages and that we should raise a toast to Mads and his absolutely maddening portrayal of Martin:
1. Whenever Vinterberg captures Martin in tight close-ups or tighter mid-shots, Mikkelsen does something absolutely extraordinary. Whether it is a poignant smile or a mild breakdown, he lets the emotions "fade in" on his face gradually. You can see the hint of a smile slowly building at the corners of his lips and how it takes some time to reach the twinkle in his eyes. You automatically get the sense that Martin has lost touch with his feelings and it's almost as if his facial muscles are sometimes unsure about expressing something they haven't in a long time.
2. Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's camera in Another Round is an enigma in itself. It captures the escalating alcohol levels by constantly being in a perpetual state of dizziness, somewhere between complete abandon and complete control. Mikkelsen ensures that he has a symbiotic relationship with this carefree camera movement by making Martin play along to its groove. It's almost like the drummer and the bass player tightly locking together to create an impeccable rhythm section.
3. It's hard to make a brooding, existential and strikingly banal character not seem like a boring performance. But in an initial classroom scene where Mikkelsen is giving a yawn-inducing lecture on industrial revolution, he even makes boredom look interesting by inflections of speech and an eternally confused blank look.
4. A good actor needs to be empathetic and induce empathy in the audience. But a great actor will make the audience question their own empathy at some points in a film. Mikkelsen does exactly that in the emotional and rather violent outburst with his wife. He does not make it a Pacino- or Di Caprio-like standard Hollywood outburst. Instead he dials it down just enough to make it look like a man's vulnerabilities getting the better of him.
5. The adage "acting is reacting" is perhaps as old as cinema itself. But Mikkelsen doesn't even "react" in the conventional sense of the term. Sometimes his face is just a blank slate, yet it is a landscape of existential doom. Sometimes he just listens with his void-like eyes and the audience is left to imagine the thoughts bubbling under the surface.
6. Early in the film, we are introduced to Martin's backstory: he was a trained jazz/ballet dancer who is now out of practice and rusty. And at different points of the film, his friends try and encourage Martin to show them a move or two during their drunken shenanigans. Martin never obliges until the cathartic end, which we will talk about shortly. But Mikkelsen takes this backstory, internalises it, and almost subconsciously lets Martin break into a fluid rhythm every now and then. Whether it is during a particularly passionate lecture or him going bonkers during a night at the bar, you can see the invisible dance running through his veins. In one particularly quiet scene with his wife where Martin is apologetic and lays his heart bare, Mikkelsen even adds a sense of rhythm to Martin's attempt in holding back his tears. You have to see it to believe it.
7. Mikkelsen and the other actors saw and referred to actual videos of people going batshit crazy after they are drunk, for an accurate physical depiction. But Mikkelsen knows that it's not about how convincing the drunkenness looks, it's more about what it adds to the character's journey. The contrast that Mikkelsen adds in a drunk Martin through astonishing physical acting goes way beyond acting intoxicated. It's almost as if Martin ages down almost instantly and moves like any of the Danish teenagers he teaches in his class. It's almost as if with each movement, he is finding a new purpose in his stagnant life. You see Martin transform in front of your eyes every time he drinks. And Mikkelsen can do that without making Martin say a word, but by just making a move and gesticulating differently.
8. And, of course, the climactic scene that even made Guillermo Del Toro jump up (he has said so in a chat with Vinterberg and Mikkelsen). Mikkelsen could have very well made the dance seem like one of those "impossible feats" that actors do and leave people gasping in awe about their skills. But he knows better. Martin's dance is the dance Leonard Cohen was talking about when he wrote "Dance me to the end of love". Martin's dance is not simply catharsis, it's about Sisyphus finally breaking the cycle. Martin's dance is like Vinterberg's revolutionary first film, it's "a celebration". And Mikkelsen hits the "sweet spot" with the scene – that surreal moment when an actor achieves or touches something that is beyond human comprehension. For me, the moment that left a permanent impression was the first "break" Martin takes before resuming the dance with complete recklessness. He sits on the bench, panting, and looks out into the waters where the empty boats are a painful reminder of his loss. But it's almost as if Martin realises right then, that sometimes the finest farewells are the ones in which you dance like there's no tomorrow. How many times have we heard the statement that a good actor makes walking seem like dance and a good dancer makes dancing seem like walking? Mikkelsen makes the dancing seem like the flight of a phoenix who has just risen from the ashes of existence.
Another Round is clearly a film that people will continue to talk about in the moments to come, and Mikkelsen is clearly an actor whose art will remain timeless. But sometimes, great artists outdo themselves. Mikkelsen's Martin would make even a hard-boiled teetotaller have a drink or two, and let themselves go on the infinite dance floor of life. And that, perhaps, is Mikkelsen's greatest achievement.