Unruly is directed by Malou Reymann and stars Emilie Kroyer Koppel, Lene Maria Christensen, Danica Curcic, Jessica Dinnage, and Anders Heinrichsen. It's Danish, Swedish with English subtitles. Part of the Scandi Film Fest, it's set in the 1930s and inspired by real-life events from the notorious women's institution on the Danish Island of Sprogø. Worth every moment of its 135 mins, it was crowned best Nordic film at the 2023 Göteborg Film Festival which is no surprise with such powerhouse performances that took you back to an era it spawned from. Be sure to check out the rest of the offerings at the film festival and download the pdf program here .
Seventeen-year-old Maren (Emilie Kroyer Koppel) is just a girl who dreams of a better life and wants to have fun. She loves to party and with a full plate on her hands, her mother cannot control her. This brings her to the attention of the authorities who find her ill-mannered, strong-minded, promiscuous, and deem she has a mental deficiency. She is sent away to a women's institute on the small island of Sprogø where they train girls to step back into society. It's the time parliament approved sterilisation to stop women they deemed mentally deficient from producing babies, Denmark being the first European country to pass this law. Under the strict regime of director Nielsen (Lene Maria Christensen), Maren shares a room with Sørine (Jessica Dinnage), one of the director’s favourites. Sørine is to show her the ropes, but Maren's strong-willed refusal to comply with the system sparks consequences for both of them.
This is a frightening story of its time, and indeed a dark spot in Denmark's history. It is horrifying to think there were laws that could have you put away against your will based on behaviour that wasn't the norm at the time, and once there, you could possibly never have a life outside the institution again. The inescapable feeling of being trapped, restricted and at the mercy of the powers that be who believed what they were doing was absolutely right plays out like a horror story. It's a well-balanced film in that you couldn't really hate the authorities carrying out the letter of the law, because they believed they were doing right and thought they were actually taking care of the women in the institution.
Performances are strong all-round but the leads who play Maren and Sørine are heartbreakingly good at what they do. Maren is full of life and wilful, and Sørine is mousy and follows all the rules, reporting all she sees like the favourite she is, to the director of the institution. The layers peel back and you learn Sørine feels she has much to gain by being little miss goody two shoes. Maren also has plans of her own to escape the system, but it backfires on her and pushes her further into a world of pain. The transformations between Maren and Sørine are powerfully performed by the actors, as one becomes broken and loses all hope, and the other finds her strength. This is a story where cruelty is casually meted out by those with power, and women are meant to behave in a compliant, reserved manner. The film portrays the normality of its times, but it's powerful in that it goes about telling its story and leaves it up to the audience to be impacted by its sheer strength. This is one not to be missed with performances that do not skip a beat.