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.
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.