A slightly late (and brief) review of a new entry to BBC Four’s Nordic Noir slot on Saturday evenings.
Entitled The Keeper of Lost Causes, this 90-minute feature film from Danish production company Zentropa is based on a book by Jussi Adler-Olsen featuring Detective Carl Mørck, the head of a new cold case unit working in Copenhagen. Mørck is there in disgrace after his rash actions in a previous case left one partner dead and another paralysed, so his current team now consists of one administrative assistant – a Syrian immigrant named Assad – and it’s presumed that Mørck will see out his time rubber-stamping old casefiles until he quits. Naturally he doesn’t, and instead becomes obsessed with a case that Assad has unearthed about the disappearance and presumed suicide three years ago of Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter), an up-and-coming female politician. The original investigation was sketchy to say the least and so Mørck digs deeper despite warnings from his superiors to drop it.
I was initially wary of The Keeper of Lost Causes, not least because a large section of the story revolves around the extended incarceration and torture of a young woman. I’m not a fan of torture porn at the best of times and even less of the depiction of graphic physical and psychological violence directed at women; I appreciate that some elements are needed for realism and to avoid giving the impression that rape and murder are just a ‘jolly good jape’ without consequence to entertain the armchair detective audience, but a little goes a long way and too many films, series and novels go much, much further than is required these days.
Fortunately in the case of The Keeper of Lost Causes, screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel and director Mikkel Nørgaard pare down that side to only the minimum that they deem necessary and they manage to keep it just on the right side of bearable. The film has a surprisingly deft touch at presenting enough of the historical detail of the old case without getting bogged down or breaking up the narrative, and the film always keeps Mørck and Assad at the centre of the proceedings without glorifying the perpetrator and his deeds. It’s a tight story with a definite purpose, and all the threads come together well in the final scenes which grow organically out of the story rather than feeling tacked-on or anticlimactic.
Nikolaj Lie Kaas is a solid lead, as you’d expect from one of the most successful Danish actors of his generation (he was also co-lead in the third season of Forbrydelsen and is best known internationally for his role as the assassin in the Dan Brown movie adaptation Angels and Demons.) Here he’s not required to do much more than be a furrowed brow bulldozing his way through the case, while Assad (Fares Fares) gets to be the more nuanced and intuitive investigator.
Ultimately The Keeper of Lost Causes doesn’t give us much that’s new – Mørck has all the genre clichés of a dour, troubled, maverick cop, and the story won’t surprise any true fans of crime fiction. Even the cold case setting is getting a little repetitive these days having also been the basis for the likes of New Tricks, Cold Case and Waking The Dead. However the film was much better than I’d expected, well made and very stylish, and I liked the main characters to the point where I would happily watch or read more of their future investigations.
Unfortunately it does seem as through Adler-Olsen’s British publishers, Penguin, are struggling with how to market and present his novels. They can’t even agree on the series’ overarching umbrella title, with the book covers bearing the line ‘A Carl Mørck Novel’ but the inside referring to ‘the Department Q series’. The books themselves have also been renamed for the UK market and given unmemorable, hard-to-search-for one-word titles: The Keeper of Lost Causes is now Mercy; the sequel, entitled The Absent One in the US, is Disgrace, which has been followed by Redemption, Guilt and Buried. These names cause all kinds of confusion if you’re searching an international site like Amazon where it’s all too easy to pick up the same book twice or get them out of order. Fortunately the latest releases have more memorable titles such as The Marco Effect and The Hanging Girl, with a seventh volume due out in 2017.
Having seen the film adaptation of The Keeper of Lost Causes two weeks ago, I’ve just started reading the next novel in the series (Disgrace, a.k.a. The Absent One) which was originally written in 2008 and translated into English in 2012. I’m enjoying it albeit with a few caveats, the first being that Adler-Olsen seems to enjoy spending more time detailing his killers and their crimes than he does his detectives; and the second that the translation isn’t quite as expert as I would have hoped for, with instances of clumsy phraseology and disconcerting British idioms that jarred me from the flow of the narrative or made me re-read to get the proper intended sense of the prose. It’s perhaps not altogether surprising that a different translator is used on subsequent books.
Overall though the stories and plots are intriguing and the characters feel unusually deep and well-rounded, so I’ll happily forgive them any flaws and look forward to any more Carl Mørck/Department Q stories on screen or in print in the future.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
The Keeper of Lost Causes is currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for television license holders, and can also be bought on DVD and Blu-Ray. Two sequels have also been filmed but not yet released in the UK. The novels by Jussi Adler-Olsen are available from High Street and online retailers and as eBooks.