EuroNoir roundup 2: Spin S2, Occupied S1 E2-10, Trapped S1 E3-4, Follow The Money S1 E1-4, Blue Eyes S1 E1
Apologies for March having been such a quiet time here on Taking The Short View. Unfortunately I’ve had a lot of work on, and even if I hadn’t there has been something of a dearth of subjects that I’ve been motivated to write about this month. But I’ll try and make up for it with a little flurry of end-of-month activity, brought to you courtesy of the extra free time made available courtesy of the Easter long weekend in the UK.
I’ll start with a pick-up post following on from a previous entry made in the middle of January, as we continued to be inundated by all manner of new European drama offerings across multiple channels…
Spin S2 (More 4)
I made a few notes about the first three episodes of season one of French political drama Spin (Les hommes de l’ombre) in my previous post. Immediately the first six-part run was concluded More 4 went straight on with the second season, despite the two-year gap between their original airings in France. However, it turns out that the two series are really quite different with only marginal connective tissue: where the first season had been the story of a presidential campaign in the shadow of a shocking assassination and with a focus on a ‘state falsehood’ committed by the devious prime minister uppermost in everyone’s minds (although which then petered out mid-series), the second series opens a year later with the election a long-distant memory. Spin doctor Simon Kapita (Bruno Wolkowitch) has been made director of communications for the new president Alain Marjorie (Nicolas Marié) whose interior minister Benoît Hussan (Olivier Rabourdin) has been forced to resign over a financial scandal. But Hussan knows about an explosive scandal involving Marjorie’s wife Elisabeth (Carole Bouquet) who is already struggling with her role as French first lady while suffering from bipolar disorder.
In the interim, most of the season 1 cast has departed leaving only relatively small supporting roles for former prime minister Philippe Deleuvre (Philippe Magnan) and his loathsome PR schemer Ludovic Desmeuze (Spiral’s Grégory Fitoussi). We do get a new star in the form of The Night Manager’s Aure Atika as Gabrielle Tackichieff, the Secretary-General of the Élysée Palace with whom Kapita falls in love in the wake of his divorce from Appoline (Valérie Karsenti) and estrangement from headstrong daughter Juliette (Marianne Fabbro).
The trouble with the second series is that without the overarching storyline of the election, this becomes a tangle of various disconnected storylines that make the show feel nothing more than a rather uninspired political soap opera. Plots start, stop, mill around but without an overriding purpose. Kapita himself is sidelined at times but the other characters aren’t strong enough to take over as the lead interest, making the whole thing rather confused and all over the place even before it ends with a scenario that appears completely fashioned after The West Wing season 3 climax in which the president orders a political assassination which takes place while he’s at the opera.
Even so, the season did well enough to get the series recommissioned. But I have to admit that Spin never really gripped me anywhere near as tightly as it needed to. It’s certainly watchable, but I simply can’t get excited about it.
Spin is available via Walter Presents on Channel 4’s streaming service All 4.
Occupied S1 E2-10 (Sky Arts)
Watching Occupied (Okkupert) I was continually distracted by the gorgeous natural landscapes and the stunning modern architecture to be seen around Norway. However, at no time was I nearly as gripped by the story, which features the country under pressure from a highly unlikely alliance of the European Union working with Russia in order to ensure the continued production of fossil fuel energy to service the rest of the continent.
This is a slow-burn political thriller, so slow in fact that it never lives up the series title: at no point is Norway actually occupied by Russian forces. Things almost come to a head in the final two-part story but even here, at what should be the climax to the first season, the writers back off and restore the nervy status quo meaning that the whole of the first season has become something of a sluggishly paced prologue for some real story yet to come down the line.
It doesn’t help that consistency is not the show’s strong point. The main character, Hans Martin Djupvik (Eldar Skar), has about five different jobs in the course of the ten episodes while prime minister Jesper Berg (Henrik Mestad) has a higher number of different political strategies in response to the Russians than he does sets of ties and suits in his wardrobe. The flip-flop loyalties of Norwegian security chief Wenche Arnesen (Ragnhild Gudbrandsen) and restaurant owner Bente Norum (Ane Dahl Torp) similarly end up appearing arbitrary and unconvincing while other characters like Hans Martin’s wife Hilde (Selome Emnetu) wander in and out with little to do.
Overall the show seems to struggle to identify where its loyalties lie, split between those trying to find peaceful political ways of dealing with the situation and those who believe that violence is the only way to see off the Russians. Ultimately it appears that the writers come down on the side of “you can push us only so far before it’s right for us to fight back with guns and bombs” but that proves to be something of a quagmire. Maybe this sort of disturbing conclusion about terrorism being justified is the whole point of the exercise, but the development and arguments built up along the way aren’t nearly effective or forceful enough to pull it off and the whole thing remains stuck in the unrealistic political fantasy trappings in which it started, in which nothing makes nearly enough sense to be as believable as it needs to be.
Occupied is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Trapped S1 E3-10 (BBC Four)
A brief follow-up of the new Icelandic crime thriller Trapped (Ófærð) which ended its run a couple of weeks ago. I reviewed the first two episodes last month and was, to be honest, in something of a ‘meh’ about it and didn’t share the universally rapturous views of the critics.
Maybe I was just in a bad mood for that opening brace of episodes, because I certainly enjoyed it the more it went on. The strange black humour underpinnings of the first two episodes were swiftly filtered out and the red herring about the body having been dumped from the involving passenger ferry was also quickly dealt with, all of which helped to give the remaining eight episodes a stronger sense of focus.
There’s no question as to the performance of Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, a towering presence as the local chief of police Andri in the snow-locked town of Seyðisfjörður to the north of Iceland. Equally impressive in the end was his small team of officers consisting of Hinrika (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir ) and Ásgeir (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who also made firm impressions. Outside of the police team and Andri’s extended family, however, the characters remained too much on the periphery so that by the time any of them were implicated in the murder it was hard to know, remember or care who most of them were, with one particularly effective exception of a too-close-to-home culprit unveiled in the penultimate episode. However, ultimately the whodunnit relied rather too much on hoping we simply hadn’t noticed the real guilty parties through lack of intrinsic interest in them.
Nonetheless it came to a commendably low-key, bleak finish and the fade-out on Andri – whose life had been effectively shattered by the events of the past ten days – certainly landed a punch. I’m still not sure I rate it as highly as other critics do, but without a doubt it climbed into being entirely worthy of a four-star footing with definite re-watch value even before factoring in the astonishing locations and immaculate photography.
Trapped is available on DVD and Blu-ray from April 11 2016.
Follow The Money (BBC Four)
Replacing Trapped on the BBC Four Saturday night schedule is the very different Follow The Money (Bedrag), the latest offering from Danish broadcaster DR which brought us Forbrydelsen. However, although this new series also starts with the finding of a dead body, it’s not a crime procedural but rather is more of a drama seeking to expose the greed and amorality of the corporate world.
Any crimes that Energreen might commit appear to be ‘legal’ ones. While the body fished from the water was a worker on the company’s offshore wind farm and health and safety regulations surely flouted, the immigrant worker had been employed by a sub-contractor so there’s no direct blame attached to Energreen itself. Similarly, when the company needs to shut down a subsidiary company, the fact that all its assets have been stripped is entirely proper under the law. And when some insider trading is revealed, it’s nothing to do with Energreen itself but rather two greedy employees who are immediately fired and reported to the police – albeit after they’ve made a run for it to Brazil where they can tell no tales.
Energreen’s CEO Alexander Sødergren is played with just the right amount of sociopathic charm by Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Sarah Lund’s third season sidekick in Forbrydelsen) but most of the events are seen through the eyes of newly appointed head of legal Claudia (Natalie Madueño) who is having to swallow some of her ethics to retain her job. Outside, ‘maverick’ detective Mads (Thomas Bo Larsen) is playing hard and fast with judicial rules about wiretapping in his determination to make Energreen pay for the drowned worker’s death by whatever means necessary.
The title of Follow The Money harks back to the key to successfully investigating Watergate: in this case the money in question is two million euros given to the two ‘rogue’ Energreen traders before their disappearance. But before they could leave the country, it transpires that a pair of low-life car thieves had stolen the vehicle in which the money and an incriminating iPad were stashed. Nicky (Esben Smed) and Bimse (Lucas Hansen) have the power to bring down Energreen for good, but they don’t realise it as they struggle to stay alive in a shark pool of gangsters and moneylenders.
There’s a lot of story here and some interesting characters, but the question is how much you want to see a story about corporate white collar crime (or on-the-edge wheeling-and-dealing at the very least). It’s quite slow and there’s not a great deal of tension in Follow The Money, at least not in these first four (of ten) episodes. It’s not bad – and certainly very well made and performed, with a truly stunning opening credit sequence – but if I’m honest I find myself struggling to hold an interest in the core subject material.
Follow The Money continues on BBC Four on Saturdays at 9pm
Blue Eyes (More 4)
In a similar vein, I’m also finding it hard to connect with Blue Eyes (Blå ögon), the latest Swedish offering from More 4 taking over from Spin. Again, while this starts with a murder (or at the very least a highly suspicious disappearance in the forest) and follows it up with a political assassination, this new series is very far from being the sort of Nordic Noir ScandiCrime drama that we’ve become accustomed to. Nor is it a political drama, either: instead, this series is more focused on looking into the recent rise of the far right groups across Europe.
The main character is Elin Hammar (Louise Peterhoff), a restaurant waitress who in a previous life was chief of staff to the country’s Justice Minister Gunnar Elvestad (Sven Nordin) but who was forced to quit after taking responsibility for a previous political scandal. When Sarah Farzin – Elin’s successor in the role – abruptly disappears eight weeks before a general election, Elin herself is recalled. Meanwhile the far-right party is on the rise thanks to their chief spokesperson Annika Nilsson, who is stabbed to death after a political rally. Annika had been in an altercation with Sarah at the start of the episode, and at the end of the first hour it’s Elin who is the first to find the body in a rather remarkable coincidence.
It’s still early days to really work out whether this will be a show worth preserving with. It’s got some interesting aspects to be sure, but its principle focus is looking into what drives the rise of the far right racist parties in Sweden and as such is a little too self-consciously sanctimonious in its approach to these topics. It could well lurch into a full-blown conspiracy thriller about the rise of fascists – and might well be of some real interest if it does – but right now the trademark Nordic Noir slow burn makes it difficult to tell. It hasn’t done enough to win my unwavering support for it and I’m not sure if I’ll continue watching for any length of time; but at the same time it’s intriguing enough not to want to dismiss out of hand.
Blue Eyes continues on More 4 on Fridays at 9pm.