A teenager in 1930s Denmark is forced into an institution to treat her rebellious behaviour, in Malou Reymann’s affecting and timely second feature.
The eldest daughter in an impoverished family, teenaged Maren (Emilie Kroyer Koppel) is exhilarated by the changes to Danish society in the early 1930s. She’s powerfully fond of jazz, dancing, and the looser sexual mores — and isn’t going to let poverty or piety stop her. But when she becomes the talk of the neighbourhood, the era’s version of children’s services intervenes. Angered by her surly attitude, the imperious and malevolent Doctor Wildenskov (Anders Heinrichsen) diagnoses her as “slightly mentally deficient and antisocial.” She’s whisked off to the island asylum on Sprogø, run by the authoritarian Miss Nielsen (Lene Maria Christensen). Maren is shocked to find that this won’t be a short stay. Most of the other girls have been there for several years — or longer. And things only get worse when the government passes a law mandating that the “mentally deficient” be sterilized, a law championed by Wildenskov.
Malou Reymann established herself with the groundbreaking transition drama A Perfectly Normal Family (2020), and her latest film is similarly propelled by emotional intelligence and compassion. But there’s also a fierce moral indignation here, and the scope of the story offers her a much larger canvas. As Maren grows closer to the other girls in the asylum — especially Sørine (Jessica Dinnage), who’s initially threatened by Maren’s brashness — she butts heads with the administrators. But Reymann doesn’t just create a morally simplistic world of victims and victimizers; she also points out that even those who seem to benefit from the power structure must pay a terrible price.
Inspired by real events, meticulously researched by the filmmaking team, and frighteningly topical in our current moment, Unruly exposes the tragedies that come from being denied the right to determine what you can do with your own body.
Content advisory: suicide, homophobia, sexism; themes of abuse