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Welcome to the Underworld: City State

Reviews

Welcome to the Underworld: City State

Review by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir.

After watching the much-hyped Black’s Game (2012) I was curious to see another recent Icelandic film which also covers crime, drugs and sex—the darker side of Reykjavík—and is thought to provide a fairly realistic picture of the brutality of the Icelandic underworld.

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Released in October 2011, City State (Borgríki) by director Ólafur Jóhannesson features a star league of actors, both Icelandic and foreign.

British actors Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomorrow Never Dies, Evita) and Philip Jackson (Little Voice, My Week With Marilyn) play supporting roles as the U.K. ‘business partners’ of Icelandic gangster Gunnar, portrayed by Ingvar E. Sigurðsson (Jar City, Angels of the Universe).

Gunnar is striving to protect his ‘business’ in drugs and prostitution from wannabe gangster Ingólfur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) and Serbian mechanic-turned-criminal Sergej (Zlatko Krickic), who has the Balkan mafia on his side.

Gunnar, however, has the Icelandic police on his side. A corrupt superior at the Reykjavík Metropolitan Police’s drug department, Margeir (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), likes to call in favors at Gunnar’s brothel.

This is of major inconvenience to Margeir’s detectives Andrea (Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir) and Rúnar (Björn Thors)—who are having an affair—as they are trying hard to bust the gangsters. When put under strain, Margeir trades in their safety for his benefits.

This is perhaps not an original storyline for a crime thriller but I like the format of the film in that it tells the story from four different angles.

The focus shifts between Gunnar, Sergej, Margeir and Andrea so that the viewers obtain a deeper understanding of their characters and motives and come to understand that nothing is black-and-white. There is no clear line between the good and bad guys.

Of the four stories, Sergej’s is the most touching. He is an immigrant trying to make a decent living, looking forward to the birth of his first child.

Sergej then gets tangled up in drug trade and is molested in front of his wife, resulting in her having a miscarriage. Grief-stricken, he seeks vengeance and progresses further into the underworld, beyond the point of no return.

The best part of this film is Krickic’s performance, which is very convincing. With no formal training in acting, he came to Iceland to play football. He turned out to have a talent for acting and ended up in the movies, until now playing minor parts.

Not as convincing was Ágústa’s portrayal of Andrea. (In)famous as the Ali G-like character Silvia Night, she proved that she could also be a serious actress in Jar City. However, I didn’t quite get the same feeling for her performance in City State.

Ingvar gave his usual flawless performance as Gunnar, the big shot watching his ‘business empire’ crumble, and it was interesting to see Sigurður do something other than comedy, with which he is primarily associated, as the fallible Margeir.

Supporting actors did their part in contributing to the film’s feeling of authenticity; I especially favored Gladkaya Luna’s interpretation of brothel operator Jelena.

All in all, I enjoyed watching City State, at times more so than the fast-paced and sometimes over-the-top Black’s Game.

City State has its weaknesses and failed to wow me, yet kept my interest through an interesting format of storytelling and in humanizing its characters, presenting them not as one-dimensional but rather as people capable of doing both good and bad, being tough and vulnerable at the same time.

I cannot pass judgment on whether City State gives an accurate picture of the Icelandic underworld, but that is irrelevant. What matters is that as a piece of fiction it provides viewers with entertainment and food for thought to boot.

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City State was recently released on DVD with English subtitles and it available online on amazon.co.uk.

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