Movie Review: Harrowing ‘Daniel’ recounts ISIS kidnapping of Danish photographer

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The harrowing true story of a young Danish photographer kidnapped by sadistic ISIS forces in Syria is recounted in Daniel, a new feature from directors Niels Arden Oprev and Anders W. Berthelsen now playing with English subtitles at Prague’s Edison Cinema. 

Esben Smed (A Fortunate Man) gives a captivating performance as Daniel Rye, who finds himself looking for a new future after his gymnastics career is cut short following a brutal injury in the film’s opening scene. 

After leaving his childhood home and moving in with girlfriend Signe (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), Rye finds work in another passion: as a photojournalist, a freelance job that brings him to Ethiopia before he takes the initiative to travel to Syria on his own to document scenes of everyday life during wartime. 

Rye plans to visit only safe areas in the war-torn country, away from any fighting. He stays overnight in Turkey, and travels by day with the support of locals across the Turkish border. But in a quickly-changing landscape, Daniel discovers the safe zones are not so safe as he is detained by paramilitary forces and accused of being a CIA spy. 

About two-thirds of Daniel recounts Rye’s experience in captivity for more than a year, through escape attempts, torture, humiliation – and also humanity. Daniel is eventually imprisoned alongside others that include high-profile captive American James Foley (Toby Kebbel) and held by a British-born ISIS cell nicknamed ‘The Beatles’ by the hostages because of their English accents. 

Smed gives a captivating performance in the lead, and carries Daniel through its darkest scenes. The character’s adjustment to life in captivity under some of the worst conditions imaginable is heartening, and small moments between him and other prisoners give the film some unexpected moments of levity. Daniel uses his gymnastics background to teach his fellow captives yoga, and slowly develops a bond with Foley. 

A significant portion of the film is also dedicated to Daniel’s family, including parents Kjeld and Susanne (played by Jens Jørn Spottag and Christiane Gjellerup Koch) and sisters (Sophie Torp and Andrea Heick Gadeberg), and their pursuit to get him released.

Unlike Foley, whose captivity is used towards political ends, the terrorists are more than willing to release Rye for a fee. But the Danish government refuses to negotiate with terrorists, and hostage negotiator Arthur (Anders W. Berthelsen) warns that any publicity will make the negotiations more difficult; for this working-class family, raising the funds needed to save the life of their son and brother seems like an impossible task. 

Torp, as Daniel’s older sister Anita, gives a commanding performance as the driving force behind the fund-raising and negotiations as some of the other family members seem to resign themselves to the inevitable; Koch, as his mother, also has a memorable last-resort scene with a Danish businessman. 

Co-directed by Niels Arden Oplev (Flatliners and the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and actor Berthelsen, who also plays the key role of the hostage negotiator, Daniel is an engaging and emotional experience that poignantly captures this true-life story from multiple angles and provides some real insight into the procedure surrounding the negotiation with terrorists, and its far-reaching impacts. 

Daniel was nominated for 15 Robert Awards (the Danish equivalent of the Academy Awards) last year, and won four including Best Actor (Smed), Supporting Actress (Torp), and Adapted Screenplay (Anders Thomas Jensen).

Daniel

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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