The Tunnel (Sky Atlantic) (2013) [DVD]

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tunnel-0As far as reasons for screen remakes go, the only genuinely valid ones are that the original wasn’t all that good and/or that you really do have a better, original way of tackling the story. After all, some of the all-time classics we love like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca were themselves remakes of earlier inferior films in their day, but ever since the classic version was produced filmmakers have wisely stayed away from approaching them again knowing that however good a new production might be, it will still fail badly in detailed comparison.

Simply remaking something because today’s teenage cinema-going demographic allegedly isn’t interested in watching anything more than five years old (let alone anything as archaic as a black and white film) is a thick-headed excuse by comparison. And simply trying to cash in on a bit of nostalgia is both cynical and utterly misguided, as demonstrated by last year’s The Man From Uncle the title of which not only meant nothing at all to today’s teens but actively put them off by being both confusing and misleading. And bottom of the heap when it comes to justifying remakes must be the “We’re only doing it to fulfil the terms of a business contract” as evidenced by both The Amazing Spider-Man and last year’s Fantastic 4, which brought nothing new to the table/was quite spectacularly awful respectively.

Arguably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of acceptable reasons to remake a film or TV programme relates to the case where an original is in a foreign language (non-English in this context). There are a lot of cinema goers and TV viewers who simply won’t countenance watching something that is either dubbed or subtitled under any circumstances: I confess that I myself find the former very difficult, but of course have no problem with the latter as shown by the amount of genuine Nordic Noir fare I’ve lapped over over the last few years.

And it’s Nordic Noir that has inspired quite a number of remakes in recent times, with Forbrydelsen being adapted as The Killing for the US television market that went on to run for four seasons, and more recently the first series of The Bridge that was remade in both the US/Mexico and then in Britain/France. In the latter production, the pivotal role of the Øresund Bridge (which directly links Denmark and Sweden) was cleverly replaced by the Eurotunnel and hence the series was accordingly retitled The Tunnel.

tunnel-2I held off watching The Tunnel for as long as I could; it first aired in the UK on Sky Atlantic in October 2013 but I only finally watched the DVD over the 2015 Christmas holidays because I was trying to ensure that my memories of the Danish/Swedish original had faded sufficiently so that I could give it a fair viewing without making constant unfavourable comparisons. Unfortunately the Nordic original’s storyline is so strong and memorable that even with such a long passage of time since my last viewing, it was amazing how much of it came flooding irresistibly back when I started viewing The Tunnel.

The Sky/Canal+ joint production by Kudos (UK) and Shine (France) follows the original storyline very closely and hits all the same major plot beats. There’s a slight compression of events because while both series have ten parts, episodes of The Tunnel run to only 46 minutes while The Bridge routinely clocks in at 58. In addition, chief writer Ben Richards adds an extra storyline about a covert security services black ops team in an attempt to address some perceived gaps in Hans Rosenfeldt’s original storyline, but unfortunately this still doesn’t tackle the biggest problem of all which is the disconnection between the Truth Terrorist’s initial campaign and his subsequent targeting of one of the show’s principal characters in a personal vendetta. That said, this new storyline at least does no harm to the process, and while it doesn’t have the space to expand into anything particularly interesting in its own right it does at least add a little extra texture and depth overall.

In terms of a genuine point of distinction from the Nordic version, perhaps the biggest difference in the two shows is somewhat serendipitous and comes down to the choice of location. In the original, the Øresund Bridge directly links Sweden’s third-largest city of Malmö with the Danish capital of Copenhagen and the events switch from one location to the other making for a determinedly urban setting. By contrast, The Tunnel is obliged by its use of the Eurotunnel to situate itself in the much smaller towns of Folkstone and Calais and surrounding coastal locations along the south of England and north of France, but resists venturing off to the giant metropolis settings of London and Paris. I’ve always thought that there is something inherently strange and otherworldly about seaside resort towns out of season – and I say that as someone who was born and raised in just such a place – and the show’s writers and directors make good use of this off-kilter, seedy atmosphere. As a result, even more than was the case in The Bridge, the locations of The Tunnel make a big impression and firmly imprint their own presence upon the production. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily better, only that it’s different and distinct, the end result coming across not unlike the French noir series Witnesses which utilised similar locales.

tunnel-1The other key creative decision that the show must make is which nation gets to ‘be’ Denmark and which of them steps into the Swedish role in the existing screenplay. A fundamental aspect of the Nordic version was that it was a study of existing national caricatures as seen by the other country: Danes apparently perceive Swedes as icy, precise and pedantic while Swedes regard the Danes as rather scruffy, sloppy and careless. It was these stereotypes that informed the initial creation of the two lead characters of Martin Rohde and Saga Noren. However instead of following this lead, The Tunnel seems to opt for the opposite strategy of subverting and going against comparable British/French stereotypes in creating the new characters of Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann: instead of making the British character an uptight, emotionally frozen stiff-upper-lip sort as might have been expected, Karl becomes the friendly, laid back laddish adulterer. Similarly, Elise shows none of the free-spirited Gallic nature that the national clichés would have led us to expect from that quarter and instead she’s the uptight, unforgiving literalist.

In the case of Karl, this works surprisingly well. As much as I am a fan of Kim Bodnia’s portrayal of Martin in the original, I have to give Game of Thrones star Stephen Dillane huge credit for creating a brand new character here. Underneath the friendly demeanour is a much deeper and more complex person, one who is for the most part highly intelligent but with deep flaws and blind spots, and a life full of believable regrets both personal and professional. It’s almost as though the makers of The Tunnel were aware of how the Nordic show had teetered close to being unbalanced by the power of the Saga character and wanted to ensure that there would a better equilibrium from the outset. Small wonder then that Dillane was rightly recognised for his work here by winning the International Emmy Award for Best Actor in 2014.

Just as the remake has clearly worked on Karl’s character to bring him more up to spec, so they have also tried to refine Elise and make her character less overwhelming and show-stealing. Unfortunately this proves to be a big mistake. Where The Bridge is at times driven by the sheer dynamic power of Sofia Helin’s performance, scaling back the character in The Tunnel leaves a hollow feeling at the centre of this version. Seeking to avoid direct comparisons with the original, Richards and the production team decided not to bestow Elise with the same Aspergers-esque psychological make-up and instead simply ascribe her odd behaviour to being extremely introverted coupled with lasting trauma from the death of her twin sister in a drowning accident when the pair were teens. Unfortunately the script then still calls upon Elise to exhibit the best-known examples of Saga’s extreme anti-social cluelessness and inappropriate behaviour, only now it simply doesn’t make the same sense. Elise should have integrated and adapted far more towards societal norms by this point just to get by, as opposed to Saga whose Asperger’s tendencies make her genuinely incapable of this sort of growth – although that said, the Nordic show cleverly never actually pins down Saga’s diagnosis which means she’s able to show more development over three seasons than would be strictly compatible with the condition.

tunnel-3The other problem with Elise is the way the character is played. With Saga, Sofia Helin adopts a permanently intense stare which makes you believe that at all times – even when making prescribed small talk or having sex – she’s having to concentrate fiercely just to simulate even this level of ‘normality’ to the outside world. By contrast, Clémence Poésy choses to play the role as constantly serious, but after a while this just comes across as being rather blank, even at times projecting a bafflement and befuddlement that makes her appear somewhat dim – someone you want to shake just to get a reaction out of. As a result of this different approach, Elise is simply not nearly as interesting as a character and remains a ghostly outline of her predecessor, defined only by the leather jacket, long blonde hair and idiosyncratic Porsche (although in Elise’s case it’s a 944 not Saga’s 911, an oddly truculent change for change’s sake.)

Away from the two main characters there’s a surprisingly starry cast to be found, including Spooks’ Keeley Hawes, Game of Thrones’ Joseph Mawle, Jekyll & Hyde’s Tom Bateman, Merlin’s Angel Coulby, War & Peace’s Jack Lowden, Death in Paradise’s Tobi Bakare not to mention the superlative one-of-a-kind Liz Smith as an elderly care home resident. Perhaps the biggest name of all is the actor playing the role of the unmasked Truth Terrorist, who is someone who has guest starred on almost every television series going on either side of the Atlantic as various types of evil villain. The minute he appears on screen, the game is up – you might as well have loud klaxons announcing the guilty party has arrived, as opposed to the Nordic version where the equivalent character is played by a somewhat nondescript performer who is able to slip into the proceedings barely noticed, which makes his eventual unmasking all the more effective. That sort of surprise simply isn’t possible here, unfortunately.

Such flaws in The Tunnel mean that it simply isn’t a match for The Bridge, but at the same time it’s a perfectly decent drama serial in its own right with much to commend it, foremost among them Dillane’s performance and the eerily effective small town seaside mise-en-scene. While less use is made of the Eurotunnel than the Øresund Bridge, the glimpses we do get of the otherwise out-of-bounds areas under the Channel are really quite fascinating and absorbing in their own right – and it turns out that there really is a sign at the midway point marking where British jurisdiction ends and French territory begins. That makes for a great setting for the show’s inciting incident of the finding of a body, later found to be two halves of separate victims – placed precisely across the border to ensure that it sparks a joint British/French police investigation.

Overall the show has enough of its own identity and ideas to stand on its own two feet and make for a good viewing experience, especially if you haven’t seen the Nordic original (or at least not in the last two or three years) in order to take the edge off the direct comparison. As an aside, I’ll add that I watched this in a rare (for me) ‘binge’ over the Christmas holidays at a rate of two episodes per day over successive days, something I never usually do but which here helped me get over any snags when memories of the original came through too insistently, as I was able to hasten on and maintain the momentum and not come to an inadvertent premature stop.

tunnel-4While viewing The Tunnel, I also saw the news that a second series has now been commissioned. This was a genuine surprise to me, not because the series doesn’t warrant it but simply because I didn’t realise there had been any possibility it would return. And I’m actually interested to know how they will proceed – whether they will follow the plot line of the second series of The Bridge or alternatively strike out with a completely original story. The fact that I actually want to know the answer to this question is perhaps the most sincere favourable recommendation I can give for The Tunnel.

However, to come back to the discussion that opened this review, there’s still the basic question of why a remake was necessary or desirable in the first place. In the case of The Tunnel, you can’t even say that it’s to get around the problem of subtitles/dubbing. The co-production nature of the show means that while the British characters talk in English, all the French characters speak French and have to be subtitled for the UK audience. (Interestingly in the UK-aired version Elise mainly speaks English when Karl is around, which makes perfect sense in story terms, but the bi-lingual actress then redubs her own scenes for the French transmission.) It seems very odd indeed that Sky and Canal+ have gone to all this trouble and expense to remake a foreign language TV series for their own home markets only to end up with a show that stubbornly still remains at least half subtitled/dubbed whichever country is viewing it – but I guess it made sense to someone in the commissioning office. Oui?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The first season of The Tunnel is available on DVD and Blu-ray. A second series has been announced.

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