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Monday 16 September 2019

Couchsurfer: Lap up some Nordic Noir in Endless Night

Fortitude is Sky Atlantic's big-budget homage to Nordic Noir, emphasising pace and plot over effects or gimmicks

Fortitude
Fortitude

Emily Hourican

Presumably the motto 'if you can't beat 'em' join 'em' may have danced around the heads of Sky Atlantic execs at some point during the process of green-lighting Fortitude, a brand-new, big-budget 12-part drama series starting on January 29. For the last five years, we watched and enthused over Nordic Noir thrillers, or copied them, but now Fortitude goes one better by creating a mash-up, casting The Killing's Sofie Grabol, along with a guaranteed star-quality cast including Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston, Jessica Raine and Stanley Tucci, in a story of murder and intrigue in an isolated, survivalist community.

With a budget estimated to be £25m (and therefore more than the annual budget for the Sky Arts channel), Fortitude is written by Simon Donald, author of Channel 4's drama Low Winter Sun, since remade for US broadcaster AMC, and set in a fictional Arctic town where polar bears outnumber residents by three to one - hence a legal, and plot-enhancing, requirement to carry a gun at all times - in a landscape as bleak and lovely as it is remote.

This is a murder mystery operating on the understanding that what viewers want these days is complexity of plot, a measured, steady pace - remember it took 20 episodes to solve one murder in The Killing - psychological ambiguity and a great deal of the kind of dark, unsettling atmosphere that a town locked down by ice, snow blizzards and barely one hour of daylight in winter, can provide.

"We live on the one place on earth where we're guaranteed a quiet life . . . " says the town's governor, played by Grabol (who speaks impeccable English), adding that in Fortitude, visitors are "guaranteed to see the wildest things they'll ever see, from the safest place on earth."

It's a sentiment echoed by Sienna Guillory's character, Natalie Yelburton - "Here, you have to have a roof over your head and you have to be able to provide for yourself . . . everybody's always happy." With that one line, the forces of evil begin to close in.

As the town prepares to transition from mining community to high-end tourist resort, a violent death occurs, bringing in DCI Morton, a US detective played by the excellent Stanley Tucci (pictured above with Grabol and Eccleston), who is finally beginning to get the recognition he deserves as an actor.

As an outsider from a more sophisticated and open world, Morton is pitched head-first into a close-knit, tight-lipped community - so far, so classic; the kind of plotline seen in everything from The Wicker Man to Sleepy Hollow and Twin Peaks, with which Fortitude seems to have plenty in common - however, lurking in the background is Henry Tyson, played by Michael Gambon, an alcoholic in the last stages of palliative care, and an entire town who seem to have something to hide.

Claustrophobic and unsettling, with corruption, infidelity, murder and intrigue heaped together, Fortitude has shows such as The Killing, Borgen, Wallander, The Bridge and The Legacy as clear antecedents. Nordic Noir proved that there is a strong, and growing, appetite among viewers for slower, more realistic, tightly-written drama, antidote to the high-body-count, fast-paced, super-slick but superficial American-style offerings of recent years.

It's an understanding that has been taken to heart by recent British productions such as Broadchurch and The Fall, and forms the bedrock of the gamble Sky Atlantic have taken. The hype around Fortitude has been considerable - with advance screenings of the first episode conducted almost like movie premieres - but in the end, without special effects or tricky plot devices to hide behind, it is the quality of the writing, acting and production that will count.

Fortitude, January 29, 9pm, Sky Atlantic

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