Dark Horse Review

Icelandic director Dagur Kári made a strong and distinctive impression with his 2003 debut feature Nói Albinói, a wry, gentle comedy that took the position of what it meant to be an outsider and different from everyone else – in this case Nói, the Albino – and not be able to find a way of escape from the bland, mediocrity of your surroundings – in Nói’s case a remote, isolated town in Iceland. Set in Denmark, where the director studied at Film School, to a large extent it’s the same theme of quirky characters who don’t fit in that drives the director’s second feature, and the episodic humour that can be derived from the kind of real-world situations they find themselves thrown into is where the Dark Horse is most successful.

Sadly, that sense of delightful eccentricity works best only for about the first five minutes of the film, when we are first introduced to Daniel (Jakob Cedergren), and even then there’s a sense of familiarity in his behaviour. Like Nói in the director’s earlier film, our hero, while not unintelligent, seems to be completely incompetent or just totally innocent when it comes to simple things like sorting out his tax, filling his car with petrol or even driving down the correct side of the road. Amusingly Daniel attributes this inability to cope with the basic everyday necessities of life to a form of dyslexia. Consequently living in a rather haphazard way and only able to making a living as a graffiti artist, Daniel inevitably has problems when it comes to dealing with real-life situations like paying the rent, but being the kind of person he is, things have a way of working out for him.

That is the characteristic that most infuriates his friend Roger, more commonly and confusingly known as Morfar (Grandpa). Grandpa works at a sleep-research facility (rather fortunately for the soon to be homeless Daniel) but is studying to realise his dream of being a top-class football referee, but his physical bulk could be an impediment to this ambition. Even when Grandpa tries to pick up Franc (Tilly Scott Pedersen), the girl he fancies in bakery, circumstances contrive to push her, to Grandpa’s frustration, into the arms of Daniel.

It’s more from Morfar’s situation that Dark Horse draws its humour as the film progresses, the large wannabe-referee retaining his outsider status and incompatibility with the world, while Daniel has to deal with more prosaic everyday relationship situations. Inevitably, he initially doesn’t handle the challenge of growing-up well, but gets there eventually. Unfortunately this need to keep balance and fit the character into a kind of structured narrative arc does tend to take away from the eccentric qualities that made the film so amusing in its opening scenes, but there are still plenty of intriguing elements, funny incidents and amusing secondary characters – including a judge who seems to be going through a mid-life crisis – to keep the viewer entertained throughout. Sadly however, little of it fully lives up to the film’s initial promise.

Dark Horse is released in the UK by Drake’s Avenue. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

The transfer quality, as we are coming to expect from Drake’s Avenue, formerly ICA Projects, is rather basic on this edition of Dark Horse. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio is retained, but it is presented without anamorphic widescreen enhancement. Largely filmed in black-and-white – with only one brief scene in colour – the image is nevertheless relatively clear and free from any significant marks or flaws and no real digital artefacts. Some cross-colouration (faint bands of purple and yellow discolouration) can be seen occasionally, and could be problematic depending on the sensitivity of your display device.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio track is fine, and reasonably clear with sufficient depth of tone, but not impressive.

Subtitles, inevitably, are fixed on the transfer and cannot be removed. The attempt to get as much of exchanges of dialogue on the screen as possible, which means that exchanges and one or two word responses can appear on the same line, separated by a hyphen. They also fly past fairly quickly at times. When stretching to two lines, the first line stays in the picture frame, surrounded by a transparent border, while the second lies outside, making it incompatible for zooming to widescreen.

The only extra feature is the Trailer (1:50), which should at least bring a smile to your face.

Dagur Kári’s second film certainly exhibits the talent and wonderful dry humour that was evident in his debut feature Nói Albinói. Like that film however, Dark Horse never amounts to much more than a series of funny incidents played out by a couple of eccentric characters. For many people that will be more than enough, and perhaps the film might even have been more successful if it had just played out the film in this way. Attempting to tie them all together into a rites of passage story however has the unfortunate effect of smoothing out the rougher edges that make the characters distinctive. As for the DVD, well, with Drake’s Avenue, it’s another case of just being thankful that the film is getting a UK release on DVD at all – the picture and sound being just about functional, but in no way impressive.

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