Torben, an ex-alcoholic estranged from his family, lives alone and spends most of his time obsessed with soccer. When he’s not watching old game footage at home, he’s a referee at his neighborhood club league games, where he’s stern, tough and no-nonsense, as hard on the players as he is on himself.
But one day he notices a young girl in the neighborhood named Nikoline playing soccer by herself late in the evening, seemingly on her own. When she knocks on his door one night, looking for food and company, they develop a bond, looking out for one another and eventually becoming friends.
But when Niko’s alcoholic and absentee father confronts Torben, it forces Torben to look at his own past regrets and actions — and find a way to heal them going forward into the future.
Writer-director Jesper Quistgaard, along with co-writer Nicklas Clark, has crafted an absorbing drama about fathers and their relationships with their children. Distinguished by excellent acting, insightful writing, responsive camerawork and an approach that honors its characters and their struggles, it offers a story about love, redemption and what it really means to grapple with regret.
The film is on the longer side for a short, but it painstakingly constructs Torben’s life and character, showing us the lonely tenor of his life, his cantankerous and abrasive personality and his personal struggles to avoid his past demons. The writing is resolutely character-centered, and patiently builds up the details of his life and character.
The film also takes its time to build his growing bond with neighborhood child Nikoline carefully, and the relationship has a rich arc. Through their relationship, the audience has a conduit through which we can delve deeper underneath Torben’s gruff, harsh exterior and discover the deep well of sadness he carries within him, particularly regarding the estranged relationship with his own son.
With such a rich, intimate character-focused approach to storytelling, acting is key, and the film rests on a phenomenal central performance by veteran Danish actor Kristian Halken, who captures both Torben’s hardened, cynical outer shell and his inner well of struggle. In many ways Torben is actually quite funny, but his harsh sarcasm and lack of tact push people away, and it becomes easy to see how such an approach isolates him.
But as an actor, Halken is also not afraid to be vulnerable as well, offering glimpses into the genuine store of regrets Torben tries to keep at arm’s length. Once he develops a fatherly sense of protection for Nikoline — played with great naturalness by Esther Vrist Pedersen — he opens up, and their scenes together are often quite touching to watch. It becomes easy to see why the bond softens Torben up enough for him to confront his past, leading to both a confrontation full of aching emotion and a heartwarming end.
Some may find the beginning of “The Referee” slow, especially modern audiences accustomed to fast-paced storytelling. But the slow and patient approach is deeply rewarding here, and as a result, viewers will feel as if they truly know, understand and care about Torben by the film’s end. The film asks its audience to invest the attention and patience that Torben must learn to give in his own life. But as a result, both audience and character are rewarded with an experience — and a cherished bond with another — full of meaning, hope and genuine connection.