Over-saturation of period dramas on British TV is quickly becoming an issue. Since the surprising popularity of Downton Abbey and its remarkable achievement winning a Golden Globe and a Primtetime Emmy award, broadcasters are looking for the next pre-war, upper-class, old colonial masterpiece to break through the international market. However, there are too many similarities in historical setting, story, and character narratives; World War Two, although the most important part of British history, has become the most over-used period in TV and film. Exceptions to this do occur – such as BBC1’s Parades End – but a move away from the years 1939-1945 is favorable if not a necessity for creating new innovative programming. With BBC4’s strong relationship with Danish drama TV in recent years (Borgen and The Bridge both a hit with British viewers) it was only a matter of time till we get our first big-budget historical drama. 1864 is that drama, a 35 million dollar epic created by Ole Bornedal in association with DR1, featuring a cast of veteran Danish actors following the war between Denmark and Prussia.
1864 is the story of the German/Danish war over Schleswig and whether it should be part of Denmark or Prussia. The catalyst for this comes from Denmark and the Nationalist movement created by certain ministers to unify the country and to “re-unite” the Kingdom. But the focus is really Peter and Laust, two brothers from Denmark, who enlist in army and are involved in every conflict throughout the period. Furthermore, it focuses on the complex love they both have for their friend Inge and her struggle to keep her deeper love for Laust secret. In turn this is told in the modern day through Inge’s diary found by a young Woman called Claudia in the derelict home of Laust’s ageing great grandson.
Episode one opens to the present day and a class being taken on a fieldtrip to Dybbøl, the area where some of the bloodiest battles of the war took place. A day-dreaming student called Claudia (who is our protagonist for the present day) looks up at the sky and the scene transitions into a farm in Denmark 1851 and the inseparable brothers Peter and Laust as children. Watching the men come home from the first Prussian/Danish conflict, they eagerly await their fathers return from battle. Focusing on soldiers like Didrich and politicans like Bishop Monrad we are given the overall view of the war and the opinion from both the upper and lower class on the state of European poltics. The series is partly narrated by Inge, commenting mostly on the depravities of the war and also on certain people in the story. These give insight into the minds of characters, especially the crazed Monrad, stating “Even the strongest among us sometimes feel alone like weak and whimpering children, or like bizarre demons”. It ends with Peter and Laust both playing in the garden as if there is a war, where Peter cries at the fake death of his brother. A dramatic scene to distinguish both brothers personalities. The next episode takes place in 1864 and is the beginning of the brothers enrollment in the army.
Focusing on two separate periods addresses the slow pace that can be a make-or-break feature with dramas, especially when keeping the attention of younger viewers. 1864 does this extremely well. The pacing is brilliant and the present day also has validity to the story providing details and vital information in piecing together not only the war, but the family after Peter and Laust went to war. The two brothers relationship is one of the greatest parts of this drama. The theme of love is prominent is an aspects of 1864, from the nationalists love of Denmark to the brothers love of Inge and to deprive the show of that would leave it void. As well as that, mental illness is seen many times throughout the series from dealing with mental grandeurs of pride with Monrad to dealing with PTSD with Claudia’s mother adding to the overall story of warfare in modern history.
The war scenes are hauntingly realistic in 1864 and CGI is used sparingly in smaller battles e.g. sword fights are well rehearsed bringing a sense of claustrophobic realism to the show. When the cannons are introduced by the Prussians later on the sound of the cannonballs piercing the air and landing in the dugouts is aerie, balanced well with the silent cries of the soldiers being struck. It emulates the feeling of the soldiers during that rush of adrenaline in bouts of danger such as that and evokes somewhat of the same emotion in the viewer. Although this isn’t a new concept it is executed to a high standard.
Some of the best actors in Denmark have been cast in 1864 such as Pilou Asbæk (Kasper in Borgen) who plays the cowardly captain Dedrich and Søren Malling (Jan Meyer in The Killing) who plays the mytique gypsy soldier. Pilou’s rendition of Dedrich is probably my favorite. He creates a scared, feeble officer promoted for his wealth and in the battlefield cowards behind the front line with a bottle of whiskey always in hand. His blind jealousy of Peter and Laust is perpetuated in war forcing them into life threatening situations in the hope they don’t go back home to Inge. Pilou is fully convincing in this role often giving brilliant performances – even in the first episode his argument with his Father conveys a scared and broken man spurring the voice of Inge to proclaim he has a ‘broken soul’. Søren does just as well, utilising his trademark ‘glare’ to instill a sense of mystery in his character. Although I think the gypsy mystic role is unnecessary in this drama (and many agree with me) Søren does a great job of creating a confident leader in a war filled with inexperience.
Denmark has gifted us another top quality drama programme here on par with that of its predecessors. But the perception of the war and the anonymity of the battles outside of Denmark gives an international product that is innovative and educational. The oxymoron of the ‘new period’ drama seems absurd but explains 1864 perfectly. DR has learnt from its many popular dramas and much of the technical production is same, but the quality of the themes and characters has excelled this above any other that has been before. The budget has allowed a ‘Hollywood-esque’ set fully immersing any viewer into the universe that Peter and Laust occupy. To sum up in a sentence – “Britain has Downton Abbey, America has Band of Brothers and Denmark has 1864.”