Thursday 14 December 2017

Case solved: how a Danish detective won over TV fans

Emma Kennedy explains why The Killing's Sarah Lund is her new idol

TV legend: Sofie Grabol plays the unlikely heroine Sarah Lund in The Killing
TV legend: Sofie Grabol plays the unlikely heroine Sarah Lund in The Killing

Emma Kennedy

Later this month, The Killing (or Forbrydelsen, to give it its proper name) returns to our screens for its second series. On paper, it's a crime thriller like so many other crime thrillers -- and given the fact that it's set in Denmark, you'd expect it to have a strictly limited audience.

Instead, it's one of the most adored shows on TV, praised to the skies by critics and audiences alike.

What is it about The Killing that has sparked such interest? It's not the sense of Nordic despair -- we get that in spades from Wallander. It's not even the writing -- while its creator, Soren Sveistrup, is clearly a master craftsman, his gentle nuances are wasted on an audience that's forced to read them as subtitles.

No, there's one reason that Forbrydelsen soars above its peers: its heroine, Sarah Lund. She is simply, one of the greatest female characters ever created.

We've had female detectives before. Cagney and Lacey were the first: one of them funny, the other forever in trouble with men.

Then there was Miss Marple, the quintessential English busybody, who managed to solve crimes with nothing more than a sharp eye and a lack of anything better to do. She didn't have trouble with men, because she was too old.

We then moved up a notch with Jane Tennison, the difficult and demanding boss of an all-male team in Prime Suspect. In her, we took the first real step on the road to Sarah Lund.

DCI Tennison was a ferocious and formidable operator, but she still wandered about in a pencil skirt -- and because she was played by Helen Mirren, who could make playing a corpse sexy, it informed every last thing about her. And this is what sets Sarah Lund apart. Here is a woman who is allowed to spend 20 hours of television in nothing more enticing than a pair of old jeans, a cream and navy Faroese jumper, and an anonymous short black coat.

The very first time we see Sarah Lund, she's in a T-shirt and pair of pants. It's the only time we ever see her in a vaguely sexual context, and even then, it's domestic: a scene designed to establish that she's got a boyfriend and they're about to move.

From then on, she is boxed up into one homogenous outfit. For a heroine to be allowed to be so asexual is extraordinary. Would Forbrydelsen have had the same impact if Lund had been a man? Not a chance.

It's not just about sex, either: it's character. Lund has a boyfriend. She's supposed to be moving with him to Sweden, and giving up her job to do so. But she's a woman, so that's okay, yes?

Except that it isn't. With 24 hours to go before the detective quits Denmark for ever, a young girl is found dead. Lund is dispatched to check things out. She has a bristly encounter with her successor, a stubbly gnarl of a man who wants her gone. But Lund won't go. It is a battle, professional and personal. And with every beat of my heart, I wanted her to win it.

There's a scene in one of the episodes that sets out Lund's stall succinctly. She has been delaying her journey to Sweden. Her mother berates her for not doing what her boyfriend wants. Her son accuses her of knowing nothing about him. Her would-be replacement drops barbed comments in the hope she will take the hint and go away. She ignores all of it.

Then she returns to her office to find her boyfriend waiting in her office. He wants her to stop what she's doing and come with him. It's time for Sarah Lund to be his girlfriend. And she stares at him. And at that moment, we know she has no intention of following her boyfriend. And as I watched it, I wanted to cheer.

Lund wants to solve the case. Not because she feels a special affinity with the dead girl -- she simply wants to do her job. And for Sarah Lund, doing her job is more important than any relationship.

In other words, she's allowed to be like a man.

I tried to imagine a similar scene taking place in a crime thriller whose protagonist was male.

Can you imagine Bergerac's girlfriend moaning at him for wanting to do his job properly? Or any woman standing in front of 24's Jack Bauer and shrieking at him that he's had his fun, but it's time to go to Ikea?

When I see reality-TV starlets held aloft as aspirational figures, I want to gouge my own eyes out. It's perverse. We want heroines who are determined and committed and just bloody great.

This summer, I was lucky enough to spend time with Sofie Grabol, the actress who plays Sarah Lund so sublimely. She was intelligent, funny, engaging and I liked her tremendously.

"I wish Sarah Lund was real," I told her. "I'd love to meet her."

Sofie smiled and nodded her head. "She is a great, great woman."

Yes. She really, really is.

Irish Independent

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