Review: Karen Blixen manipulates in Bille August’s ‘The Pact’

Danish author Karen Blixen may be best known for her 1937 memoir “Out of Africa”—widely published under the pen name Isak Dinesen—and from its 1985 Oscar-winning screen adaptation, in which the erstwhile coffee farmer was portrayed by Meryl Streep.

But as the superbly acted drama “The Pact” recounts, Blixen (a formidable Birthe Neumann), in a later life wracked by pain, illness, loneliness and loss, had become a sort of exalted manipulator of souls coasting on wealth, status and a near-legendary gravitas. There was a smoke-and-mirrors aspect to Blixen’s powers de ella that was seemingly all in the service of concocting good stories, even if she was n’t necessarily writing them herself. (Though long divorced from her baron husband, she continued to be known as “Baroness.”)

It’s 1948 and into Blixen’s imperious web falls Thorkild Bjørnvig (Simon Bennebjerg), a promising 30-year-old poet with a devoted librarian wife, Grete (Nanna Skaarup Voss), and a toddler son, Bo. After getting wind of the talented Bjørnvig, Blixen summons him to her elegant family manor de ella, Rungstedlund, under the guise of asking him to write her memoir de ella. But it’s really to set one of her calculating plots into motion.

The proposal: that Bjornvig submit to a “pact” of spiritual faithfulness, one in which Blixen promises to protect him in return for his total trust. The goal: Under her guidance from her, Bjørnvig will become the artist he’s destined to be. What could go wrong?

Despite Grete’s quiet misgivings (she quickly senses the handwriting on this wall of fame), the enticed Bjørnvig befriends the baroness. She brings him into her heady circle, which includes literary patron Knud Jensen (Anders Heinrichsen) and his wife, Benedicte (Asta Kamma August).

But Bjørnvig soon learns that “trust” also means acquiescence and that Blixen places his path to literary success above all, particularly any loyalty he may have to Grete and Bo. (“When was the last time you read the word ‘wife’ in a work of art?” Blixen haughtily observes.) She’s selling the dream on her own terms, and Bjørnvig is either in or out. Yet there’s enough of a gray area that it challenges even Blixen’s entitled obstinance.

It’s a fascinating, enveloping tale and director Bille August (“Pelle the Conqueror,” “The House of the Spirits”), working off a script from Christian Torpe (based mainly on Bjørnvig’s book “Pagten”), paces the film a bit like a psychological thriller. There’s insidious tension as we watch Bjørnvig fall under Blixen’s spell and down something of a writerly rabbit hole. (One demerit: We rarely see or hear the poet’s purported gifts for ourselves.)

Simon Bennebjerg as Thorkild Bjornvig and Birthe Neumann as Karen Blixen in “The Pact.”

(Rolf Konow/Juno Films)

Perhaps most intriguing, though, is how Bjørnvig seems open-eyed as he jumps through Blixen’s hoops, pulling out of her grasp enough times to show he’s not just some ambitious dupe. Still, Bjørnvig is so encouraged by the stride he makes in his writing of him when he sticks to “the pact” that he’s loath to entirely flick off that devil on his shoulder.

Unfortunately, Grete and Bo take the biggest personal hit from Bjørnvig’s fealty to Blixen. They often lose him to extended stays at Rungstedlund, which the baroness has opened up to the poet as a creative oasis devoid of family interruptions.

A longer time away in Bonn, Germany, on a stipend-ed writer’s retreat, further alienates Bjørnvig and Grete, also a result of Blixen’s machinations. The doyenne has encouraged Benedicte, who has befriended Bjørnvig over time, to visit him in Bonn. Blixen, having noted the younger pair’s bond—and likely romantic attraction—makes them pawns in a tricky chess move that compellingly plays out in both expected and unexpected ways.

Deftly mounted, shot and scored, “The Pact” is a master class in ensemble acting, led by Neumann in a visceral, deeply layered and knife’s-edge turn. Bennebjerg is affecting as an Everyman caught between traditional and higher-minded desires, while Voss and August (the director’s daughter) deliver acutely sensitive, often heartbreaking performances.

Make a pact to catch this one.

‘The Pact’

(In Danish with English subtitles)

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles

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