Contains some general plot details
Icelandic drama Case is one of the latest additions to Channel 4’s Walter Presents foreign drama brand on its digital streaming service All 4. Not only has it been promoted quite heavily on the network’s broadcast channel, it even had the extra accolade of the first episode itself actually being aired on Channel 4, with the remaining eight episodes then released as a online ‘boxset’ exclusive.
The series has been described as being ‘in the spirit of The Killing‘, but it really isn’t. For one thing, the inciting incident that gets the plot underway – the discovery of a 14-year-old ballet student found hanged on the stage of the theatre where she trained – is quickly ruled a suicide, after which the multi-faceted investigation that follows becomes more focussed on what could have driven her to such dark despair and desperation. Less a murder mystery, then, and more a socio-political dramatisation of the pressures and ill-treatment that are too-often inflicted on young girls in today’s modern society, making it closer in spirit to the likes of Ken Loach’s seminal Cathy Comes Home than to Nordic fare we’re used to in the form of Forbrydelsen or The Bridge.
The character of Lara, the girl who found hanged, started life with abusive drug addict parents who stubbed out cigarettes on her skin. She was then taken in by foster parents who became overbearing, overprotective and overdemanding for whom nothing less than perfection in her studies was acceptable. Then there’s the ballet school itself, with its abusive lead instructor who believes that psychological bullying and performance enhancing drugs are the best way to get his troupe up to scratch. Added to this is familiar peer pressure from her schoolmates, workplace sexual harassment, and then an even darker underworld as we find an organised group of sexual predators who prey on the underage girls for explicit photographs, and sex which they secretly video and distribute to all the victim’s friends unless the girl succumbs to blackmail and enters a life of degradation, prostitution and drug abuse.
It’s a pretty grim set-up, and it’s all conveyed with unflinching and explicit honesty – far more so than I would imagine any British production would dare. There are long, detailed. spoken accounts given by the abused girls about their sordid experiences which have the feel of the writers (Þorleifur Örn Arnarsson and Andri Óttarsson) having sat down with real-life drug users and prostitutes in order to transcribe their individual personal histories. Such accounts are interspersed with director Baldwin Z’s graphic visual portrayals of what the characters have been going through, and I’d be lying if I said the depiction of nudity, sexual violence, rape and drug use didn’t make me very uncomfortable watching this. Doubtless that discomfort is all entirely by design and very much the point that the series wants to make, but the way that details such as an explicit naked photograph of the underage Lara are repeatedly lingered on by the camera felt sleazy and exploitative, and are doubtless indicative of where the socially acceptable line falls differently between the UK and Iceland in terms of what can and should be shown on TV. After a while the end result of all these accounts is a growing sense of repetition, and the impression that Case is working a little too hard to drum things into its audience’s heads with a very low degree of subtlety so that there is no chance we should miss its Really Important Message About Modern Society.
As a result, the investigation that is the narrative backbone of the show’s plot is largely a device by which this bleak world can be slowly revealed to a middle-class audience who are sat on their comfortably sofas in their pristine chic homes. Unusually for the noir genre, the role of investigator is split three ways. The intense Gabríela (Trapped’s Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir) the first among equals as a stoic police detective who is stymied in her efforts to continue looking into Lara’s death by her boss who just wants to close the case and move on, and by her likeable but placid partner Hogni (Þorsteinn Bachmann) who is content to do whatever he’s told. The baton is taken up by Brynhildur (Jóhanna Vigdís Arnardóttir), a lawyer who has taken a particular interest in child abuse cases and who was originally responsible for getting Lara moved to foster care and who now pursues the case out of a sense of personal guilt. She’s helped by a freelance investigator called Logi (Magnús Jónsson), whose lack of scruples and morals is matched only by his unquenchable thirst for alcohol which has all-but wrecked his life and career.
The investigation goes through a series of odious male sex offenders and traffickers, each more loathsome than the one before, until gradually it becomes clear that there is a ‘big bad’ presence who is the mastermind behind it all. However, viewers expecting this to be a typical Nordic whodunnit should be advised that this is not the case, with the identify of this person is revealed surprisingly early in the run. Actually this is a smart move, as that means that we the audience are able to see how this person plots and manoeuvres in plain sight to keep themselves protected, and in the process it leads to at least two genuine big shocks that leave us momentarily wondering ‘did that actually just happen?’
The evil mastermind also gets to deliver a long speech to camera in which they explain, rationalise and justify why they do what they do. It’s a deeply dark and disturbing scene, the words once again most likely taken from real-life offender statements. If you’re not appalled and outraged by the views it describes then you should probably be very worried. The words are made even more effective by a strong portrayal from the actor involved, and it’s one of a number of times when the drama slows down to give two or three minutes in a single take to one of its actors to deliver a long piece of dialogue direct to camera which never fails to grip.
Giving so much screen time and space for the actors to really show what they can do is one of the show’s major strengths. Often in subtitled drama it’s hard for a foreigner to appreciate the performances – we’re usually too busy reading the dialogue, or getting our heads around various cultural differences – but this is one of the few such shows where the outstanding acting across the board has struck me with such force. Otherwise the show’s style and approach tends to be quite plain, shot in unremarkable locations on a handheld camera with an almost documentary feel to it. The cinematographer doesn’t even get to play with light and shade because it’s set in the Icelandic summer where the sun almost never sets, not even at midnight. Just occasionally it will suddenly splash out, such as an frenetically abstract, tightly-edited scene depicting one character’s heroin-fuelled trip; other times the direction will disappear almost completely with a static shot that then slowly starts to track in to give the audience a clue about what’s going on that isn’t otherwise discernible from the dialogue or on-screen action, but it’s always nicely sly and subtle.
The series ends with a climactic slow-motion montage set to a terrific soundtrack that irresistibly put me in mind me of Broadchurch (hardly surprising as that also was the work of an Icelandic composer, in that case Ólafur Arnalds while here the credit goes to Petur Jonsson.) The case is satisfyingly tied up with only a few minor loose ends, but then has a final scene ‘sting’ which is clearly intended to get a brand new storyline up and running for a follow-up season to follow. In fact this 2015 mini-series is itself already a spin off from a previous socially-responsible legal thriller more usually known as Court that followed a traditional case-of-the-week format rather than one long story, and which focussed on the characters of Logi and Brynhildur. Here the final scene set-up for a potential new season of Case puts the focus instead squarely on Gabríela, but unfortunately it seems that this follow-up was not commissioned or at least is yet to be made.
Ultimately it’s hard to know whether to fully recommend Case. It’s not what you will be expecting from the comparisons to The Killing, and its unflinching look at the depraved underbelly of society can be very hard to stomach at times. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I would have started watching the series if I’d fully known the black roads it would end up taking me down. But the strength of Case is that once you start watching you will be compelled to see it through despite any entirely proper, visceral reaction to simultaneously pull away: that’s thanks to the strong writing, excellent performances and effective low-key direction that combine to make it equal parts absorbing and repellent in the best and most troubling, disturbing traditions of unremittingly ‘message’ drama.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Case is available in the UK on the All 4 streaming service from Channel 4, and is also bring streamed on Netflix in the US.