Contains some spoilers for events in episodes 1 and 2
There have been recent signs that the deep well of Nordic Noir fare might finally be running dry, so there were markedly high hopes and expectations in advance of the first episode of Modus, the latest production from Sweden to be broadcast in BBC Four’s Saturday evening slot that had previously been home to the likes of Wallander, The Bridge, Forbrydelsen, Trapped and Borgen. Fortunately, the new kid in Scandi class doesn’t disappoint, an initial home audience of some 1.2 million having made it the most successful Scandinavian TV series on Sweden’s TV4 in the last 25 years.
The show is adapted from the novel “Fear Not”, one of a series by Norwegian writer Anne Holt. As well as being an author, Holt was also previously a lawyer and a former Minister of Justice in Oslo, although this story is set in and around the Swedish capital of Stockholm. The lead character is Inger Johanne Vik played by Melinda Kinnaman, whose half-brother Joel starred in the US remake of The Killing. Inger is a former FBI criminal profiler who has now returned to academia while raising her two daughters, autistic teen Stina and the much younger but more worldly-wise Linnéa. Inger turns down a request from National Bureau of Investigation (‘Rikskrim’) detective Ingvar Nymann (Henrik Norlén) to consult on a high-profile case concerning the fatal stabbing of a female bishop in nearby Uppsala, but neither of them realise there has been an earlier, as-yet undiscovered killing of a celebrity TV chef – one that directly involves Inger and her family and puts them under direct threat from the killer.
Modus takes its time setting out its stall and the first two episodes are more of a slow burn than might be expected, but all the more effective for being so. Despite the fact that we also see events from the point of view of the efficient and unstoppable killer (an unsettlingly creepy turn from Marek Oravec) it nonetheless retains an air of mystery. In some ways it’s not unlike the duality between investigator and perpetrator that we saw in The Fall: it’s not immediately clear why this man is carrying out these killings, what the connection between the victims might be, or who is ultimately behind his apparently religiously inspired mission – we’ll have to wait to get inside his head.
Meanwhile the victims certainly have their own share of secrets and skeletons in their respective cupboards. The bishop’s husband Erik (played by the sublime Krister Henriksson, star of the Swedish Wallander series that helped kick-start the UK’s obsession with Nordic Noir in 2008) is notably unwilling to help the police with information about his slain spouse or why she was out alone walking through the church grounds late at night in bitter conditions. He’s also suspiciously quick to burn her private papers and photographs, and wastes no time packing up her possessions, all of which makes him an instant person of interest to the investigators.
The series is set over the Christmas holidays, and one of the genuinely fascinating aspects of the quieter moments of the first two episodes is getting to see the various traditions and customs of Swedish families at this time of the year, including a charming carol service and decorating the tree with a Nativity scene. The production as a whole looks terrific: the opening credits are composed of a serious of vignettes drawn directly from the series and each one is stunning, good enough to make up an art exhibition all by themselves. The streets and houses outside the centre of Stockholm are covered in show and look chillingly beautiful; the direction and photography of the series is top-notch, and the interior decor is also well up to the standard of former Nordic Noir offerings that dazzled viewers with a penchant for such things with unmistakeable Scandi Style from the get-go.
If there’s a complaint (or perhaps more a reservation) to be made it’s that the whole thing is so intent on looking so stylish that it perhaps comes across a little distant and icy. There’s none of the study of grief that marked out Forbrydelsen as something truly remarkable, and it perhaps a little too caught up with being mysterious and inscrutable, too busy lining up suspects rather than presenting the supporting cast as rounded personalities. It also lacks the instant connection with its main characters that made you want to know more about Sarah Lund or Saga Noren; it’s as though Modus isn’t comfortable with the audience getting too close, at least not this early in the investigation.
Ingvar Nymann is a nice enough chap if somewhat unremarkable, quiet and caring although naturally enough (this being a Swedish detective) also very melancholic after a recent tragedy involving his young daughter Stella. But Modus makes it hard for us to take a liking to Inger Johanne Vik: the opening scenes have her deliver a speech at her sister’s wedding reception in which she concludes that love and marriage is simply a desperate, doomed attempt to make the bitter loneliness of life bearable, which leaves the guests understandably baffled and uncomfortable. It seems that Stina isn’t the only one with autistic tendencies in the family.
Inger subsequently leaves her daughters alone in a hotel bedroom so that she can attend the rest of the reception; maybe childcare conventions are different between Britain and Sweden, but I felt uncomfortable over this even before Stina went wandering through the hotel only to find her way out onto the street in her nightgown. Against this, when in the second episode Inger’s ex-husband admits to leaving the children alone in the familiar surroundings of his house for five minutes, Inger hypocritically rages against his irresponsible parenting. Another example of Inger’s atypical social skills manifests when Stina is nearly run down by a lorry, but a bystander manages to drag her clear in time. Inger’s response? Rather than thanking him for risking his own life to save her daughter, she slaps the bystander for not acting sooner. Nor is it one of those understandable ‘in the heat of the moment’ reactions, because also she reiterates her feelings some time later. It’s not even that she can know something that we do, that the bystander happens to be the killer; or that Stina was fleeing from the man after seeing him with the first victim. Unfortunately Stina simply isn’t able to comprehend or articulate what she’s just witnessed, and Inger – despite being a psychologist – seems oblivious to the signs of post-traumatic stress clearly troubling her own daughter that might lead her to a better understanding of the situation.
Still it’s early days and I fully expect Inger to become a more relatable character, if not necessarily a likeable or straightforward one – where would the fun be in that, after all? And maybe it will be the budding friendship with Ingvar that will be the catalyst to this development. After all, there are eight episodes in total which means there are plenty of twists and turns and developments in store for us before Modus concludes neatly just in time for Christmas in the UK. I’m certainly riveted by what I’ve seen so far and mark this as the best Nordic Noir offering we’ve been treated to since The Bridge whose third season aired exactly one year ago; and that favourable comparison is intended as very high praise indeed.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Modus continues on Saturday nights at 9pm on BBC Four. Previous episodes are available to view in the UK on BBC iPlayer for one month. The series will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 19 December 2016. A second series is currently in pre-production. Anne Holt’s books are available in print and ebook format from high street and online retailers.