Most movies about hostage crises are rightly criticized for being over-the-top affairs, crammed with unlikely coincidences, comic-book heroics and flamboyant rants on both sides of the negotiating table. So it seems rather ungracious to point out that Tobias Lindholm’s film, which breaks the mold by depicting the seizure of a Danish ship by Somali pirates and the back-and-forth between the hijackers and the ship’s owner in a naturalistic fashion, is worthy more of respect than enthusiasm. To be sure, “A Hijacking” contains occasional dramatic outbursts, both on board the vessel between hostages and their captors, and back in the office building where the CEO of the affected company must deal with the crewmen’s families and his own board of directors. But it’s more interested in portraying the long stretches of tedium that those outbursts periodically interrupt, and frankly that doesn’t make for a particularly exciting or revealing ride.
The story begins when the Danish cargo ship Rozen, on the way to Mumbai, is taken over by a group of rifle-wielding men. The crew is forced into confinement below deck, while word of the seizure is passed to Peter Ludvigsen (Soren Malling), a fastidious, deliberate man expert at outmaneuvering business competitors. And despite recommendations that he hand over responsibility for negotiating an end to the crisis to others, Peter insists on handling the matter himself.
That leads to a long, grueling series of ship-to-shore conversations with Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the pirates’ translator, who insists that he’s merely a middleman and not one of the captors. The demands are initially enormous, with Ludvigsen responding with counter-offers that increase incrementally as the situation drags on. The whole process is presented as an extension of Peter’s regular business practices, though he’s cognizant that the stakes are higher and the people he’s dealing with more volatile and violent.
Meanwhile aboard the Rozen the focus is on Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbaek), the cook who was about to leave his job after docking at Mumbai and is looking forward to rejoining his wife Marian (Amalie Alstrup) and young daughter Kamilla (Amalie Vulff Anderson) in Copenhagen. A gregarious, likable guy, he becomes the linchpin of the connections on the ship as he prepares food for both his fellow crewmen and their captives, and becomes the hostage closest to Omar. But as the situation drags on—with intertitles showing the passage of days—his mood becomes increasingly desperate, and in a call to his wife he urges her to put pressure on Ludvigsen to pay the price for the crew’s release. That, of course, shifts the scene back to Denmark, where debate over how to handle the situation grows more and more intense.
But while the situation takes on greater urgency, Lindholm holds back, refusing to resort to the usual tropes and tricks to maximize suspense. He, cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck and editor Adam Nielsen are mostly content to allow the story to unfold in a rigorously straightforward fashion (a few sequences, mostly involving Marian, apart), with an apparent artlessness that doesn’t quite conceal the calculation behind it. The intent is to ratchet up the tension without seeming to be using cinematic devices to do so. But while there’s a certain tautness to the result, the many longeuers along the way almost make one yearn for an infusion of good old Hollywood pizzazz.
The acting is of a piece with the director’s approach, striving for a sense of authenticity that it mostly achieves. And visually the film certainly achieves a near-documentary look. But in the end its dispassion fails to generate the emotional catharsis it’s aiming for.