Nordic Noir

The Bridge S3 E1-2 (BBC4)

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Contains spoilers for the first two episodes

bridge-0It’s been two long years since the second season of The Bridge was first broadcast, and while BBC4 had kept its Nordic Noir slot warm with some very decent propositions in the meantime – ranging from the ambitious sweeping historical epic 1864 to the perfectly professional if slightly pedestrian police procedural Beck – there’s still been nothing to compare with The Bridge, which might just prove be the high water mark of Scandinavian crime drama.

Or is it?

The trouble is that after so long away there’s always the risk that a series’ actual qualities might have grown in the mind out of all proportion to reality, an unhealthy dose of rose-tinted memories take over resulting in unachievable expectations for when the show does finally return. Certainly for me there was a degree of nervousness as the opening titles began, just in case this new season wasn’t going to be up to the sort of standards that I’d built up for it in my own mind in the meantime. Read the rest of this entry »

Witnesses S1E1 (C4)

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witnessesIt’s been fascinating to see the ripple effect of Nordic Noir across the world. What started as an apparently insignificant drop on the ocean with the early series of Wallander in Sweden soon gathered pace and arguably reached its apex with the first series of both Forbrydelsen and The Bridge from Denmark, but there have been countless other shows since across the whole of Europe bearing the imprint ever since, not least Britain’s own Broadchurch that had much evidence of the Scandi genes in its über-successful DNA.

Now the latest and possibly the most refined version of the Nordic style has reached our shores in the form of the 2014 French production Witnesses starring Marie Dompnier as Sandra Winckler, a stylish and very capable police detective and single mother who seemingly misses nothing at a crime scene compared with her more casual, loud-shirt-wearing senior partner Justin (Jan Hammenecker). However, in her private life Winckler is less composed, worried about her boyfriend possibly cheating on her and also suffering from a worsening case of debilitating obsessive compulsive disorder – although it’s a shame that this doesn’t extend to proper forensic protocols at a crime scene, as she smears her bare fingertips all over vital evidence in a way that suggests that French TV productions aren’t perhaps quite so fickle about such authentic procedural details as their UK and US counterparts tend to be. Read the rest of this entry »

1864 E1-4 (BBC4)

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Having made its international reputation with acclaimed crime series including Borgen, Forbrydelsen and The Bridge, Danish public service broadcaster DR has set its sights even higher with the most expensive Danish TV production to date in the form of period drama 1864.

1864Foregoing the lingua franca of murder mysteries that has served DR so well up to now, this new eight-part miniseries has a much more intensely regional focus as it tells the story of the disastrous Second Schleswig War between Denmark and Prussia. Fired up by nationalistic fervour, the Danes attempted to annex the Duchy of Schleswig into their kingdom in breach of treaties with Prussia settling a previous conflict 15 years before. However they were no match for Otto von Bismarck who used the conflict to help set in motion the unification of Germany, while the Danes ended up losing a quarter of their land by the time the war ended. It was a blow to the Kingdom’s self-image and imperial aspirations from which the country has arguably never recovered to this day. Read the rest of this entry »

Crimes of Passion E5 “Dangerous Dreams” (BBC4)

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I hadn’t expected to return to the topic of Crimes of Passion, the latest Swedish mystery series to take up residence on BBC4 on Saturday nights, after finding the first of the six feature-length episodes not really to my liking. That was thanks to the rather overcooked Agatha Christie pastiche feel to it, with its heavy-handed 1950s styling and a confusion of red herrings and furtive looks where an actual plot should be. The next three instalments did little to persuade me that I should reconsider my initial feelings and I’d resigned myself to the series ending in much the same fashion.

And then rather out of nowhere came this week’s story entitled “Dangerous Dreams”, which is an altogether very different sort of offering from the jolly lawks amateur detective stories we’ve had until now. Instead, this story seems to take its lead from dark 19th century Gothic stories, with heroine Puck (Tuva Novotny) taking up a position as secretary to famous author Andreas Hallman (Claes Ljungmark) in his isolated country home during the winter, only to find that the atmosphere inside the house is even more chilly than it is outside in the snowy grounds.

When Hallman’s favourite son Jon (Joel Spira) dies, it appears that the young man’s long-existing serious heart condition has simply proved terminal as predicted – that is, if only his last word uttered to Puck hadn’t been “Murder.” With only Hallman’s wife and other children together with Jon’s widow in the house with Puck at the time, the potential suspect pool is a very small one; but soon after a particularly nightmarish scene sees Puck nearly smothered to death as she sleeps. The house quickly assumes a foreboding and threatening aspect to it with Puck unable to call for help or get out of the grounds through the locked gates. Gone are the Christie trappings of the earlier episodes, and instead we have something closer to a haunted house chiller, the tension mounting as Puck inches closer to the truth, which puts her own life increasingly at real risk in a way that never happened to Poirot or Miss Marple. Read the rest of this entry »

Crimes of Passion E1 “Death of a Loved One” (BBC4)

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I’ve been a great fan of Nordic Noir ever since Krister Henriksson’s Wallander series sneaked its way onto British television on BBC4 back in 2008. We’ve had some great delights from Sweden, Denmark and Norway since then including The Bridge, Forbrydelsen and Borgen that have constituted some of my favourite television viewing of the last decade.

But not all that is Nordic is Noir, and in the latest example of Swedish output from TV4 and Svensk Filmindustri we find something very different indeed. Crimes of Passion could hardly be further away from the grey, wind- and rain-swept modern urban angst experienced by Saga Noren, Sarah Lund and Birgitte Nyborg, set as it is in an idyllic summer holiday retreat on a remote island in the 1950s. Such a different style of programme from our Swedish friends would take a lot of adjusting to in its own right even it was quite brilliant, but unfortunately what Crimes of Passion ultimately proves is that the Swedish film and television industries are as capable of making an unfortunate creative misstep as the rest of us.

It’s certainly well made, no problem there: every frame of the thing looks gorgeous, director Birger Larsen putting a really stylish polish that oozes class and sophistication. From the quirky period interiors to the breathtaking beauty of the sun-dappled woods there’s barely a single scene that you couldn’t freeze frame and print out to hang on the wall. The same goes for the cast as well who are all very attractive and easy on the eye, resplendent in their 50s fashions. It’s a sort of fantasy view of Sweden from the period quite unlike the realistic Nordic Noir that we’ve become used to and indeed addicted to over the last few years. Read the rest of this entry »

Wallander S3 E1-4 (BBC4)

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Wallander was the Swedish TV series that ignited the mania for Nordic Noir in the UK, to the extent that even people who still have no taste for subtitled European drama will have experienced its influence via the likes of the massively popular Broadchurch; even Midsummer Murders went off and did an episode in Denmark recently.

But Wallander was the original. Initially just two episodes of the Swedish series were aired on BBC4 in 2008 as part of the PR campaign supporting a prestigious British adaptation of three of Henning Mankell’s detective novels, with Sir Kenneth Branagh taking the lead role and then little-known Tom Hiddleston as one of the supporting regulars. The UK series was popular enough, but it was the Swedish shows that got a lot of interest from viewers asking for more, and so the BBC eventually bought all 13 episodes of the first series to show on Saturday nights; and a phenomenon was born.

And now it’s coming to an end. The third season of Wallander currently airing in the UK is to be the last – that’s the condition that series star Krister Henriksson laid down before he agreed to return. The reduced six-part run has an overarching storyline to ensure just that as Wallander shows increasing signs of a progressive memory loss issue, which start in the first episode when he leaves his police-issue sidearm in a bar leading everyone to assume he’d been drunk. In fact the truth is much worse. Read the rest of this entry »

Mammon S1 E1-2 (More 4)

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Mammon, the latest slice of Nordic Noir, finds a new home on UK television airing not on BBC4 but on the commercial equivalent More 4. It’s also not from one of the traditional sources of the genre, but is instead a production of Norwegian television – although the overall Scandinavian flavour remains broadly familiar all the same.

The story starts with journalist Peter Verås (Jon Øigarden) investigating a case of corporate embezzlement at one of the country’s biggest companies; the twist is that the culprit turns out to be Peter’s own brother Daniel, who subsequently kills himself leaving Peter devastated. Five years later and Peter remains obsessed with the case, when a belated bequest from Daniel leads Peter to a remote waterside spot which suddenly becomes the scene of a second suicide by a man whose last word is “Abraham!” That sets Peter back on the trail of what happened to his brother, and it’s soon clear that a lot of people are involved in a previously unsuspected far-reaching conspiracy which extends even to the country’s Minister of Justice. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bridge S2 E1-6 (BBC4)

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I’ve become uncomfortably aware that I haven’t written anything about the latest series of The Bridge, which started its run on January 4 and has just passed the halfway point this weekend.

My discomfort arises in case the lack of a review here in any way suggests that I’m no longer interested in the series or am somehow disapproving of it, or that it’s implying that season two is perhaps not adequately meeting some notion of a quality threshold for inclusion in Taking The Short View. So let me make my position on this quite clear: The Bridge is probably the single best thing on television at the moment. In fact I’m probably enjoying it too much to want to sit down and start deconstructing it in detail afterwards; I simply know that it is fascinating, gripping and engrossing and has some of the most compelling characters currently to be found in modern drama in any language. Read the rest of this entry »

Arne Dahl: The Blinded Man Part 1 (BBC4)

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One day, BBC4 is going to stretch its Nordic Noir cloth too thin and the whole thing will unravel on them in an alarming threadbare mess. The channel keeps going back to the same well, going deeper and deeper in the hope of coming up with still-more hidden treasures. So far they’ve actually managed to pull it off with the likes of Wallander, Forbrydelsen, Sebastian Bergman, The Bridge and Borgen, but it can’t last. I approached the latest Scandinavian gambit with some wariness, half expecting this to be the moment when the spell by which Swedish and Danish TV has us in thrall of late would finally be broken.

Well, not this week it turns out. “The Blinded Man”, part one of a crime thriller in two 90 minute parts, was pretty impressive and certainly enjoyable, and I’ll certainly be tuning in again for part two next week. Moreover, it wasn’t just ‘more of the same’ but was a definite evolution of the Nordic Noir brand with some genuinely interesting potential.

This one is based on the Intercrime novels by Arne Dahl, the pen name of respected Swedish novelist and literary critic Jan Arnald. Unlike most crime series there’s no central lone maverick detective like Wallander, Martin Beck, Sebastian Bergman, Taggart, Rebus or Sherlock and so the makers of the TV adaptations have chosen to name the series after the author’s nom de plume rather than any of his characters, which is a little odd but does no harm.

Instead of one lone maverick, there are seven: senior officer Jenny Hultin (Irene Lindh) is given leave to create a specialist team of six officers of her choosing to tackle the most serious crimes, starting with the high-profile serial killings of a number of wealthy financiers. She chooses a bunch of misfits who individually are quite deficient – Paul Hjelm (Shanti Roney) is on the verge of being thrown out of the force for racism after shooting an immigrant in a botched hostage rescue situation – but which when combined make for a potent investigative force.

The expanded cast is a welcome change after years of series with a claustrophobic focus on one troubled detective, and you’ll soon have your favourite: whether it’s over-the-hill Viggo Norlander (Claes Ljungmark) going to absurd lengths to prove he’s still got it, or know-all intelectual Aarto Söderstedt (Niklas Åkerfelt), second-generation Chilean Jorge Chavez (Matias Varela), man-mountain chorister Gunnar Nyberg (Magnus Samuelsson) or the only other woman on the team, Kerstin Holm (Malin Arvidsson).

Watching the seven circle each other warily as they get to know each other in the first outing, adapted from Dahl’s Swedish-language novel “Misterioso”, is at least half the fun of the opening instalment. As for the mystery, the sheer lack of clues and leads is an interesting twist sending them down many blind alleys in the hope of hitting upon the right one sooner or later, giving all the cast something to get their teeth into. So far we’ve touched on secret societies, local sex crimes and organised crime gangs in Estonia, and who’s to say that any of them will figure in the actual denouement? Again, this breadth is quite different and refreshing from the other Nordic Noir shows we’ve seen, which have been laser-focused in their intended direction almost from the very first scene, recently almost to the point of cliché.

Arne Dahl feels more recognisably mainstream and less distinctively Swedish than some of the other shows we’ve seen, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – no country’s artistic output should stay in any one box too long and outstay its welcome. Visually, too, things are different: instead of the dark, gloomy monochrome Sweden we’ve seen in previous series, here is a colourful, bright and vibrant modern country, gleaming and modern as if waiting to be used as the location for a Bourne movie.

Some Nordic Noir fans might not like this change, and could see it as a case of the TV production company making too many concessions to the international market in light of the success of Forbrydelsen. But for me at least, the show retains enough distinctive Scandinavian DNA in it to work while providing something new, fresh and distinct from the shows we’ve become familiar with. As one mark of the show’s modernity, it was a lovely surprise to see the author himself take to Twitter last night to interact with BBC4 viewers during and after the show.

I look forward to seeing how the series develops and getting to know the new characters over time. Whether they prove to be equal to Wallander, Lund, Norén and Rodhe et al remains to be seen, but I’m along for the ride to find out.

The Arne Dahl TV movies air on BBC4 on Saturdays for ten weeks from April 6 at 9pm, with a midweek repeat. They will also be available on BBC iPlayer for seven days after airing. The complete first season will be released on DVD on June 17 2013.

The Killing 3/Forbrydelsen III – E9+10

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Avoids large-scale explicit spoilers, but a lot is heavily implied so read at your own peril until you’ve seen the complete series.

And so that’s the end of The Killing – known to true fans by its proper Danish title Forbrydelsen. It burned brief in our hearts – it only arrived in the UK in January 2011 – but it certainly burned bright. But now after just less than two years in our lives the series is finished after a mere three seasons, never to return.

For all its strengths that make it – in my view at least – the best show that’s been on TV during that time, the series has never been perfect. The first season showed signs of rushed writing after its season was unexpectedly doubled in length and as a result is cluttered with a ridiculous number of red herrings and loose threads never satisfactorily tied off at the end. The second season seemed to be more issue-led and lost some of the intensely personal emotional power of the first. And this third season? Rather too much nagging familiarity, too many echoes of the first two. Read the rest of this entry »

The Killing 3/Forbrydelsen III – E1+2

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You should have watched the first two episodes before reading this. While spoilers aren’t intended, they’re nonetheless inherent. Sorry.

And so we’re back up and running with our latest slice of top notch Nordic Noir, with the return of the Queen of Scandinavian Crime Dramas, the Danish Forbrydelsen which is known in English as The Killing.

First signs are positive: we’re right back into the unsettling, claustrophobic world of chief inspector Sarah Lund (played superbly once again of course by the peerless Sofie Gråbøl.) Right from the opening ship-bound scenes that begin the new ten-part story you’ll be gripped and on the edge of your seat, as the information about plot, characters and context flies at you thick and fast. This show takes no prisoners and you’re going to have to concentrate to keep up.

The writing is as strong as ever thanks to series creator Søren Sveistrup once again leading the writing team, and the direction gets stronger with each passing series – there’s a real style to this latest outing which is a match to anything that UK or US broadcasters can accomplish. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bridge S1 E1-2

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Where once it was possible for a Scandinavian drama to sneak onto the BBC schedules without anyone noticing, these days they come with such a huge fanfare and sky-high expectations that it’s almost inevitable that there will be a little disappointment when it doesn’t instantly turn out to be the next Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Wallander, Forbrydelsen or Borgen.

Almost as if knowing what they’re up against, the Danish and Swedish state broadcasters have cunningly teamed up in a unique co-production, and even made this alliance the central concept of the entire show by having it concentrate on a single murder case that starts with a body – or two bodies, it turns out – found literally at the precise point where the border intersects the Oresund bridge between the two nations. A joint investigation ensues, allowing for some interesting insights into how the two countries see their counterparts over the frontier – not always flattering, either.

The show brings with it the same cinematic sense of Nordic Noir style that’s captivated audiences of the aforementioned previous shows, but the culture clash seems to have ended up depriving The Bridge of some of the sense of Scandinavian subtlety to which we’ve become accustomed. Everything here seems to be much more obvious than it usually is: every point is made quite clear, the outlines gone over with thick marker pens where previously a light trace of pencil is all that would have been required, as if each side in the co-production is worried that the differences in approach might be too problematic for the other culture to sufficiently appreciate.

The lack of subtlety starts with the characters: Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) is Sarah Lund raised to the n’th degree of anti-social, the implication being that she is somewhere in the Asperger’s spectrum although in fact she comes over as more like Star Trek’s Mr Spock in her exaggerated traits; her local colleagues just declare her “a bit odd” and perhaps to the Danes she’s simply their vision of a stereotypically emotionless, OCD, brittle Swede. Her Danish counterpart Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) is so shambling and dozy that he makes Colombo look like a over-keen fashion clotheshorse – a wry comment on how the Swedes in turn view Danes as lazy and slovenly in general, it seems.

Initially neither character is very likeable, although Rohde quickly picks up and becomes surprisingly adept and dedicated in pursuing the case while at the same time being admirably forebearing of Norén’s quirks. In fact none of the characters are very likeable, from odious journalist Daniel Ferbé (Christian Hillborg) to social worker Stefan Lindberg (Magnus Krepper) or his homeless prostitute/addict sister Sonja (Maria Sundbom) who has hit rock bottom and then kept on tunnelling. Then there’s the strange semi-detached tale of Charlotte Söringer (Ellen Hillingsø) who moves Heaven and Earth to get her aged wealthy husband Goran a heart transplant only for him to wake up after the operation and promptly demand a divorce: given what she’s just done for him, you can’t blame her when she takes it badly.

All of these stories are milling around, along with the central murder case from the Bridge itself and the inevitable threads of the main character’s home lives (Rohde with his vasectomy and antagonistic eldest son August, Norén with her lack of social graces and interesting dating style) but it doesn’t yet gel into one compelling whole in the way that Forbrydelsen and Borgen did right from the very first moment, before they gradually allowed themselves to open out and tell broader stories. In that sense, The Bridge feels more like the way a British or French production would lay out its storylines and then gradually weave them together over the rest of the series: nothing wrong in that of course, but it lacks some of the power of their Scandinavian predecessors and makes the first two episodes a little unfocussed and aimless by comparison.

The general lack of relative subtlety extends to the central storyline as well. The Bridge Murderer is the quintessential Hollywood serial killer mastermind – the Hannibal Lector kind that never exists in reality – who has planned this crime for the better part of four years in intricate detail. He has a message which is stated bluntly so that even the police can get it: the crime of inequality in a modern society, starting with forcing the police themselves to accept that they prioritise crimes according to victims that are famous, rich or powerful while leaving the poor, weak and helpless to their own devices. This point is made early on by how the case of the lower half of the Bridge Body – a Danish prostitute – barely rated even a cursory investigation when she disappeared, but the case of the top half – a Swedish politician – instantly sparks a massive no-holds-barred manhunt.

From here the killer is going to go on to make other points, the next being about homelessness. That’s because this sociopathic genius wants to make the world a better place by forcing everyone to face the problems that are wrong with modern Scandinavian society: “Our part of the world would be wonderful if we solved our problems. I would like to point out five in particular,” the killer himself says on a CD delivered to police in attention-grabbing circumstances. I’m guessing that the widening gap between rich and poor will be another target and that this is where the heartless, heart-buying Mrs Söringer will come into things.

So this is as much message drama as it is a murder/cop story or even a study of the culture and language clash between two friendly neighbouring countries. That’s a hugely ambitious ask to impose on any mere TV programme, and it’s no wonder that in the circumstances the show has to forego some of the trademark Nordic subtlety to achieve it. I admire the ambition, and it’s certainly achieved more of its aims in the first two episodes than 95% of British or US productions could ever hope to manage in an entire series.

And yet while it’s admirable and impressive, it’s also – like its cast of characters – not really very likeable, at least not at this stage. The overly bleached-out colour palette is another way the production seems to go out of its way to grate, along with a troubling predilection for showing seamy street life, violence and nudity – including a bizarrely gratuitous nude scene for the character of Stefan Lindberg, who in any case is styled to look like he’s wandered in from a bad 70s porno flick. As the most weird character in an already very odd collection, Stefan has to be the runaway prime suspect at this early stage – although that said, he’s probably so outrageously obvious that he can’t possibly turn out to be the Bridge Murderer by the end.

It’s early days, and a lot will depend on how the series settles down and beds in. I’m certainly along for the ride for the time being, but I have to admit to being a little less enthusiastic about it than I’d expected and hoped to be.

Fabulous title sequence and theme, though – definitely unreserved full marks there!

Currently showing on BBC with two episodes on Saturday evenings at 9pm, which are then repeated separately on Monday and Tuesday around 11pm. The DVD and Blu-ray are out on May 21.