Nordic update: Modus S2 E1-2 (BBC Four), Before We Die S1 E1-5 (Channel 4), Rebecka Martinsson: Arctic Murders S1 E1-4 (More 4)
It appears that the dreary winter weather of January and February is the ideal time of the year for TV channels to roll out their latest Nordic Noir acquisitions to keep us tucked up safe and warm in our homes.
Here’s a round up of three of the current offerings from Sweden to be found airing on British television this month.
Modus S2 E1-2 (BBC Four)
I rather enjoyed the first season of Modus which aired just over a year ago, even though it was at times a bit of style over substance and the storyline (a fairly standard serial killer pursuit) rather veered out of the realm of the plausible by the end.
The opening episodes of the second series jump genres and become more of a political action thriller, with the main plot involving the sudden disappearance of the US President while on a state visit to Sweden. Heavily pregnant forensic profiler Inger Johanne Vik (Melinda Kinnaman) is called in to assist her now-husband, detective Ingvar Nymann (Henrik Norlén) in the search. But it also brings her face-to-face with the president’s chief aide Warren Schifford, who is the very reason she abruptly quit the FBI and returned home four years ago…
Modus is probably the clearest example yet of a Swedish show designed for international sale – not least thanks to the casting of Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall as the president, and British TV and film star Greg Wise as Schifford. We also get Billy Campbell as the president’s estranged husband: by coincidence, he was one of the stars of the US remake of The Killing, which also starred Joel Kinnaman – now star of new Netflix series Altered Carbon – who is half-brother of Modus star Melinda. It seems that Nordic Noir is a very small world!
The show looks more polished and expensive this time around, but even a bigger budget isn’t up to the task of convincingly portraying the global meltdown that would take place if the US president ever really did go missing on foreign soil. Regardless of the host nation’s wishes – even a trusted ally – you’d be overrun by battalions of US marines touching down and locking down the capital under martial law before you could blink, combined with a diplomatic crisis of unprecedented proportions. Instead, the pace and scale of the operation depicted in the opening episodes of Modus is more of a level of a search for an average housewife who hasn’t returned home from the supermarket by teatime.
Basically, it takes an American production of the order of 24, The West Wing, Madame Secretary and Designated Survivor to really understand just how big an event this would really be in reality. A European series just doesn’t quite get it. And that lack of a sense of global real politick somewhat undermines what is actually a rather intriguing story that’s slowly developing under the surface. They’d have been better to have a lesser official go AWOL than the president, and leave that sort of hi-octane hyperbole to Jack Bauer in future.
All that said, I’m still hopelessly addicted. I’ll see you on the other side in a month…
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Modus S2 is on BBC Four on Saturday nights at 9pm, and afterwards on the BBC’s iPlayer service. Season 1 is available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Vik/Stubo series of books by Anne Holt are available in bookshops and as e-books: this series of Modus is based on the novel Death in Oslo.
Before We Die S1 E1-5 (Channel 4)
Despite a heavily contrived starting premise, this Swedish police procedural about an undercover informant working for the Mimica crime family deploys all the usual genre tropes to decent effect to make a ten-part series that exerts an increasing grip as events develop.
Before We Die (Innan vi dör) starts with hard-as-nails detective Hanna (Marie Richardson) turning in her own son Christian (Adam Pålsson) to the police when she finds he’s dealing drugs. While in jail, Christian becomes friends with Stefan (Peshang Rad) and ends up with a job as a dishwasher at the Mimica’s restaurant. He’s gradually trusted with more and more to do on the illicit side of things under crime boss Davor (Alexej Manvelov), while falling dangerously in love with Stefan’s fiancé Blanka (Sandra Redlaff).
However Christian is actually working for the police as an informer. But his role is known only to his handler Sven (Johan Hedenberg) who coincidentally is Hanna’s current romantic parter. She knows nothing of this (I did warn you that it was contrived!) but then Sven goes missing, believed kidnapped. Hanna only knows that his contact in the Mimica family goes by the codename of Inez; she increasingly pressures Inez for information, thereby unknowingly putting her son at risk of being uncovered. At the same time she comes to the realisation that the Mimicas have their own mole in the heart of the police squad.
Before We Die has all the usual tropes and clichés of the undercover agent genre, and has a view of Eurocrime families and biker gangs that only exists in middle class TV productions. But it wields its various elements to decent effect and soon becomes rather engrossing; while straining credulity, overlaying the domestic side (Hanna and Christian’s strained relationship) with the police operation does end up giving it a layer of originality that raises it up several rungs on the ladder and makes it a solid instalment in the annals of Nordic Noir.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Before We Die is on Channel 4 on Tuesday nights at 11pm, and afterwards on Channel 4’s online streaming service All 4.
Rebecka Martinsson: Arctic Murders S1 E1-4 (More 4)
Based on the novels by Åsa Larsson, Rebecka Martinsson: Arctic Murders is a curiously anaemic affair. It stars Ida Engvoll as lawyer Rebecka Martinsson, who returns to her childhood home in the far north of Sweden to attend a funeral only to get mixed up in a deeper mystery that ends up in a shocking shoot-out.
This is a good looking show, taking Nordic Noir out of the usual urban setting in the south of Sweden up into the harshly beautiful, sparsly populated lands within the Arctic Circle. Each story also comes up with an arresting opening: the second of four stories in the eight-part series features a body found in a caravan in the middle of a blizzard, and the third sees the recovery of a body of a diver from under the ice where she’s been entombed for months.
But beyond these beginnings, I found the stories curiously flat and uninvolving. As are the characters themselves, even Rebecka: despite the fact that she’s appointed a police prosecutor, she thinks it’s okay to feign a breakdown to get into a psychologist’s office, steal his keys and riffle through confidential patient files.
The only regular member of the cast to make any real impact is Eva Melander as local police chief Anna Maria Mella. In the first story she’s heavily pregnant, making comparisons to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in Fargo inevitable; she’s a flawed character, hard-nosed but also vulnerable and very human, and therefore much more relatable than the cold and aloof (and perennially dithering) Rebecka
The stories plod through a series of twists and turns to their inexorable conclusion, but it all feels very unremarkable, generic and drawn out. It’s the first time watching a Swedish show on British TV that I’ve actually ended up concluding that it’s simply not grabbing and keeping my attention sufficiently to continue watching through to the end.
Rating: ★ ★
Rebecka Martinsson: Arctic Murders is on More 4 on Fridays at 9pm, and afterwards on Channel 4’s online streaming service All 4.
Maltese S1 E1 (All 4)
A quick bonus: it’s not Swedish and it’s not even Nordic, but Channel 4 did show the first episode of 1970s-set Italian crime drama Maltese with the entire ten-part series then available to watch for free in the UK as a boxset on the broadcaster’s online digital platform.
It features Kim Rossi Stuart as Commissario Dario Maltese, a Rome detective who returns to his childhood home on Sicily to attend a lifelong friend’s wedding. Unfortunately the bride and groom-to-be are killed in a Mafia hit right before Maltese’s eyes, and so he requests a transfer to Sicily to track down the killers. Which isn’t easy, as there seems to be no reason for the Mafia to have wanted to target his friend.
I didn’t approach this with any real expectations, but the first episode proved surprisingly watchable. That’s mainly thanks to the strong central performance from Stuart and also to the impressive recreation of 1970s Italy complete with big hair styles and luxuriant moustaches. Comparisons with the similarly Sicilian-set Inspector Montalbano are inevitable, but this show is deadly serious and doesn’t indulge in any of the comic touches of Andrea Camilleri’s creation.
While I didn’t feel any immediate urge to log on for episode 2, Maltese was certainly impressive enough for me to bookmark it as a show to come back to in the summer when there’s less on the network schedules and more time to indulge.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Maltese is available for free in the UK via Channel 4’s All 4 online streaming service.