It’s been fascinating to see the ripple effect of Nordic Noir across the world. What started as an apparently insignificant drop on the ocean with the early series of Wallander in Sweden soon gathered pace and arguably reached its apex with the first series of both Forbrydelsen and The Bridge from Denmark, but there have been countless other shows since across the whole of Europe bearing the imprint ever since, not least Britain’s own Broadchurch that had much evidence of the Scandi genes in its über-successful DNA.
Now the latest and possibly the most refined version of the Nordic style has reached our shores in the form of the 2014 French production Witnesses starring Marie Dompnier as Sandra Winckler, a stylish and very capable police detective and single mother who seemingly misses nothing at a crime scene compared with her more casual, loud-shirt-wearing senior partner Justin (Jan Hammenecker). However, in her private life Winckler is less composed, worried about her boyfriend possibly cheating on her and also suffering from a worsening case of debilitating obsessive compulsive disorder – although it’s a shame that this doesn’t extend to proper forensic protocols at a crime scene, as she smears her bare fingertips all over vital evidence in a way that suggests that French TV productions aren’t perhaps quite so fickle about such authentic procedural details as their UK and US counterparts tend to be.
The initial plot is as instantly gripping and inspired as any that I think I’ve seen in a detective show since that first season of The Bridge with its bifurcated corpse placed across a national border: here, the corpses of a man, woman and teenage girl are discovered in a pristine home in a small coastal town in northern France. But the odd thing is that this wasn’t their home; and the three dead victims aren’t related or for that matter even obliquely connected to one another. Nor were they even murdered: each seemingly died of natural causes several days before, their bodies dug up and exhumed from graveyards located miles apart and then brought to an uninhabited show home on a brand new housing development. It’s not even the first time this bizarre crime has occurred in the last few months, but on this occasion there’s a new element: a photo frame has been left by the side of the master bed in which a picture of celebrated former chief-of-police Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte) has been inserted.
Winckler is left not only investigating the case of the dead bodies themselves, but also the mystery of Maisonneuve, who was also her harsh trainer at the police academy. He has been staying – more accurately hiding – in a physical rehabilitation facility recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident eight months earlier. The accident, which took place soon after the death of his wife, left Maisonneuve in a coma for two weeks and seemingly with lasting memory issues. However Winckler suspects he’s actually holding back vital information from them: he’s certainly deceiving everyone by using a cane to walk that he doesn’t actually need, and he has an unexplained strained relationship with his resentful son Thomas (Laurent Delbecque).
Instantly there’s enough here in this initial premise to captivate and enthral, and the show itself is shot stylishly with super cinematography and some lovely little directorial touches with the set-up of shots, slow push-ins and aerial establishing sequences from directly overhead. There’s a hint of the weird about the out-of-season seaside resort where the story is located with witnesses apparently afraid to come forward, and visually the coastal setting looks strikingly similar to England’s Jurassic Coast that played host to Broadchurch – although whereas the British show was filmed at the height of summer and was a huge boon to the local tourist industry, Witnesses seems the very antithesis of that sentiment and sets everything against grey and stormy skies that can’t have done much to lure holidaymakers to the decidedly tatty-looking Normandy seaside.
Initially it appears that this is going to be a slow-burn affair that risks bordering on the pretentious, but there’s soon some lovely touches of humour such as Maisonneuve’s face as he tries to settle down to sleep in a child’s bedroom at a friend’s house, surrounded by pink cuddly toys, which is an absolute hoot. They also manage to throw in a foot chase midway through, and then a genuinely startling and jolting climax that is as good a “WTF?” cliffhanger as Forbrydelsen used to manage (and that show really did know how to keep you coming back for more) with violence and danger erupting literally out of no where when you least suspected it.
After all this praise, you’re doubtless expecting a ‘but’ – but truth to tell, there simply isn’t one. I was completely captivated by the programme from pretty much the start and was surprised it only got better as it went on. Overall I found it to be one of the very best new shows of its kind, drawing upon all the best lessons that have been gleaned over the past decade of watching Nordic Noir offerings and their many imitators. It might perhaps be a little self-consciously setting out to tick every single box in the Scandi-style crime playbook, but there’s no question that it does so extremely well – and then smears some French style on top for good measure to make sure that it is wholly its own thing and not just a slavish copy. And speaking as someone who never managed to get into France’s previous big, long-running export in the crime genre market Engrenages a.k.a. Spiral, the fact that I really liked the French flavouring on this occasion shows just how well the show’s co-creators Hervé Hadmar and Marc Herpoux have pulled it off here.
Of course, there’s every possibility that the show could go firmly off the rails in the remaining five episodes, but I hope that’s not the case because in just one outing it’s already managed to become one of my new favourite things and a welcome bright spot in the summer weeks otherwise lacking in much in the the way of original dramatic fare on television.
Witnesses continues on Channel 4 on Wednesdays at 10pm in the UK. The series will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 5 2015.