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Another Round review – brilliant meditation on wasted potential and getting wasted

A fantastic Mads Mikkelsen reunites with filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg for this refreshingly even-handed ode to alcohol

Danish filmmaker and provocateur Thomas Vinterberg walks a brilliant tightrope between deprecation and celebration with his latest film and in the process creates something more interesting than either. His Another Round (Druk is the better Danish title) is a sort of-love letter to alcohol that, unlike so many films that set out to tackle the subject of inebriation, acknowledges our modern obsession with drinking with a refreshingly even hand.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen, re-teaming with Vinterberg after The Hunt and on blisteringly sozzled form) is a high school history teacher who has lost his mojo. He struggles to connect with his children; his wife works the night shift and is never around. In class, his students are so concerned about their slipping grades that they summon their parents to snap their teacher out of his sleepwalk in a scene of humiliating intervention.

It's only during a night out with fellow teachers and friends, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe) and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), that Martin tearfully admits to the stagnation of his own life. It's here that Nikolaj half-jokingly recommends an experiment, based around a theory proposed by the real life Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud, who believes that the blood alcohol level in human beings upon birth is actually too low. Kept at 0.5 at all times, though, and happiness and productivity will soar. You see where this is going. Hemingway – unwisely, if you know how he ended his days – is deemed the role model: like the author, they'll stop drinking after 8pm as a way to regulate their consumption. And for a while, this overhaul really works: Martin feels like a new man, his class are inspired like never before… he ends up having sex with his wife in a tent.

You can picture the same premise being used to power a sub-par American comedy – something for Ed Helms or Jason Bateman to reduce to bad drunk acting and tired horseplay (and maybe one day they'll get the chance). But here the presence of Mikkelsen keeps the material from feeling as silly as it is. Even if you don’t buy into the experiment, you buy into his portrait of middle-aged melancholy, the sense of having nothing left to fight for.

Some have criticised the film’s supposed lack of judgement on its subject. But it would be too simple to fall on a single opinion about such a complicated theme. To deride the practice entirely would seem idealistic and out of touch. To encourage the sort of lifestyle practiced here wouldn’t work, either. Instead Another Round finds just the right balance: alcohol is an effective social lubricant, it tells us, and it can make for a really good time. But as with most things, there is a price to pay in excess, and Vinterberg doesn't hold back on showing us the fallout after spells of heavy drinking. You feel these hangovers like they were your own: scrambling in the street, wetting the bed, falling head-first onto the pavement and waking up not knowing where the blood came from.

Vinterberg has had such a strange career, though this mode – a kind of gentle provocation – suits him far better than the material of his recent bombastic war film KurskConsidering his beginnings as a contemporary of Lars von Trier and the promise of his disturbing family drama Festen, his switch to more traditional period dramas signalled a strange departure. But this brings him back to more interesting territory – playful, ambiguous, in many way moving to predictable beats, but always politely refusing to go quite where you expect.

The best is saved until last. Vinterberg plants a seed early on that pays off miraculously in the very final scene – an unpredictable explosion that brings everything to a close in a dizzyingly euphoric fashion. It's absolutely one of the great cinematic climaxes of recent times (not to be ruined here), sending you away on a massive high just when it seemed like sobriety might be the big takeaway – a life-affirming nudge to go out, sink a couple of beers (or ten), and see where the night takes you. From time to time.

Another Round was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. It is showing in cinemas from 2 July.

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