I’ve been a great fan of Nordic Noir ever since Krister Henriksson’s Wallander series sneaked its way onto British television on BBC4 back in 2008. We’ve had some great delights from Sweden, Denmark and Norway since then including The Bridge, Forbrydelsen and Borgen that have constituted some of my favourite television viewing of the last decade.
But not all that is Nordic is Noir, and in the latest example of Swedish output from TV4 and Svensk Filmindustri we find something very different indeed. Crimes of Passion could hardly be further away from the grey, wind- and rain-swept modern urban angst experienced by Saga Noren, Sarah Lund and Birgitte Nyborg, set as it is in an idyllic summer holiday retreat on a remote island in the 1950s. Such a different style of programme from our Swedish friends would take a lot of adjusting to in its own right even it was quite brilliant, but unfortunately what Crimes of Passion ultimately proves is that the Swedish film and television industries are as capable of making an unfortunate creative misstep as the rest of us.
It’s certainly well made, no problem there: every frame of the thing looks gorgeous, director Birger Larsen putting a really stylish polish that oozes class and sophistication. From the quirky period interiors to the breathtaking beauty of the sun-dappled woods there’s barely a single scene that you couldn’t freeze frame and print out to hang on the wall. The same goes for the cast as well who are all very attractive and easy on the eye, resplendent in their 50s fashions. It’s a sort of fantasy view of Sweden from the period quite unlike the realistic Nordic Noir that we’ve become used to and indeed addicted to over the last few years.
The problem is that you can overdo such things; and this is a textbook case of how to do exactly that. The end product is so idealised and stylised that it utterly detaches from any sense of believability. The 50s setting is emphasised so relentlessly that there is barely a single scene in which at least one character isn’t lighting up, smoking or just finishing a cigarette; or at a pinch, helping themselves to a glass of whiskey. The clothing fashions make the male cast members look like they’ve just come straight from auditions for Mad Men while the women settle for being copycats of 50s icons anywhere from Doris Day to Marilyn Monroe.
But perhaps most troubling of all is the story itself, which is drawn from 1940s and 50s novels by the prolific crime novelist Maria Lang who was Sweden’s answer to Agatha Christie. This first story focuses on a Midsummer holiday gathering of university friends and colleagues which sets off a chain reaction of deaths and suspicious accidents that leaves a dwindling pool of suspects trapped on the island, cut off from help after their sole link to the mainland is put out of action. That allows literature postgrad student Puck Ekstedt (Tuva Novotny) to play amateur detective alongside her budding boyfriend Einar Bure (Linus Wahlgren) who latterly calls in his old school friend Christer Wijk (played by Wallander’s Ola Rapace) to provide official police support.
Murder on an island, completely cut-off from help? Even one of the suspects calls the situation Ten Little Indians (as Christie’s And Then There Were None was politically incorrectly known at the time). In fact the whole thing comes across like a Christie pastiche, with Puck repeatedly witness to a number of significant and incriminating exchanges that provide key insight into motive and opportunity just as Hercule Poirot always managed. The trouble is that if I wanted to watch an Agatha Christie story, then that’s what I’d do; watching a copycat, even if does come with subtitles, feels like a fast track to instant disappointment.
It doesn’t help that the first episode overcooks all its ingredients so much that it ends up turning pastiche into parody: there are so many whispered exchanges, furtive glances, significant looks and blatant red herrings during the 85 minutes that it really would feel like as if it is playing for laughs if not for the fact that the cast are all playing it dead straight, leading to a strange and not very pleasant conflict of tone and approach right down the middle of the production. The lengths that the story went to in order to keep the suspects isolated on the island end up escalating close to farce. It’s the kind of production where if you see someone cleaning a gun in one scene, you can be certain someone will be shot ten minutes later and the gun go missing only to show up in an incriminating place after another ten minutes.
It’s depressingly obvious in its approach even if it works overtime to make itself infuriatingly impenetrable via a confusion of tangled storylines and a forest of misleading clues that end up insufficiently resolved. Christie’s own brilliance was in managing to bamboozle her audience while keeping her stories amazingly simple and straightforward at the same time, like a magician showing the simplest of tricks which their audience still can’t figure out even right in front of their faces. On this evidence however, Maria Lang’s approach is to make the story so damn complicated that not only can you not follow it without getting a headache, you’ll cease to care halfway through. And yet strangely I still managed to guess whodunnit simply by virtue of how it utilised a rather tired old trope to seemingly rule someone out.
The net result of all this was that I stopped caring about the story and its line up of cliched suspects and found the whole thing a bit of a plod. It’s a shame as the production really does look gorgeous, and the lead trio of Novotny, Wahlgreen and Rapace are actually quite the best things about it especially as the two men both start to fall for Puck and set up the beginnings of a tricky love triangle.
Maybe the second episode will find a better level at which to pitch the action and allow the three leads to develop. The unfortunate heightened dreamlike unreality of “Death of a Loved One” may be entirely intentional – after all, it’s the Midsummer holiday and the lead character is called Puck – and it will be interesting to see whether subsequent episodes take the same approach or whether they calm down and prove to be quite another beast entirely for the remaining five stand-alone feature-length episodes. The fact that the episode received luke-warm reviews when given a theatrical release in Sweden in 2013 and that TV4 hasn’t got around to airing the series as a whole on its broadcast network yet doesn’t exactly bode well, however.
I’ll stick with it and certainly try it a second time, but I confess my patience is short. If I wanted this sort of fare then I’d opt for the ITV Agatha Christie Poirot and Marple productions (which I think themselves are too arch and clever for their own good at times) or else the modern equivalent of Midsummer Murders, because frankly British productions do this sort of thing very well and generally see off even the best challengers for the locked room cosy murder mystery crown. In this case it seems that sometimes not all that glitters turns out to be Nordic Noir gold after all.
Crimes of Passion continues on BBC4 on Saturday evenings at 9pm. The six-part series will be released on DVD on October 6, 2014.