Tuesday 19 November 2019

Cold cases

Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Slow-paced Nordic crime series make for arresting TV, says Paul Whitington

A dowdy Copenhagen policewoman who wears bad Christmas jumpers and eats her dinner from a pot might seem an unlikely TV heroine, but 'The Killing's' Sarah Lund has become an idol to millions all over the world.

As brilliantly played by Sofie Grabol in the original Danish series, Sarah is sullen, unkempt, impolite and uncommunicative, but also an obsessively good detective, and strangely charismatic in spite of herself.

And while one might have thought a slow-moving, dimly lit, 20-part subtitled foreign series would go down like a ton of bricks in the English-speaking world, 'The Killing' was a surprise hit when first screened on BBC4 last year.

The show quickly achieved cult status, and outperformed more celebrated US dramas such as 'Mad Men'.

It was re-made on US television, a second Danish series did equally well on BBC4, box sets have sold well, and fans are now awaiting the third, and possibly final, series as though it's the second coming.

'The Killing' is merely the latest Scandinavian crime drama to hit it big internationally in what's surely been one of the most unlikely cultural trends of recent years.

And now British satellite networks are looking to capitalise on the popularity of Nordic dramas with a host of new shows.

In the explosively violent 'Those Who Kill', which started on ITV3 in February, a petite blonde detective inspector called Katrina Ries Jensen risks life and limb in pursuit of a depraved serial murderer.

This year, BBC4 will screen three new Scandinavian dramas.

'Sebastian Bergman' tells the story of an out-of-control profiler who's crippled by grief since losing his wife and child in the 2004 tsunami.

Meanwhile, 'The Bridge' follows a murder case that brings Sweden and Denmark into conflict, since the body was found halfway across the sea bridge that connects the two countries.

BBC4 will also be screening the slightly more lighthearted Norwegian show 'Lilyhammer', Netflix first original series, which stars Steve Van Zandt as an American mob hitman who is relocated to the wintry town of Lillehammer on a witness protection programme.

It's been called 'The Sopranos on Ice', and a second series has been commissioned.

If there's a common theme in all these Nordic crime dramas, it's low lighting and a pervasive atmosphere of gloom, but foreign audiences seem to love them.

There's something appealingly exotic about the wintry landscapes and the clean Scandinavian lines of the streets and houses in which the cops and criminals live, love and kill.

Life in Sweden, Denmark and Norway appears slightly more evolved than elsewhere: houses seem cosier, people look healthier, and women seem to have broken more effectively into positions of real power.

Even the criminals seem happier, and there's a curious decorum to the way the cat and mouse game of criminal investigation is undertaken.

The Nordic crime craze probably started with Henning Mankell's 'Wallander' books, which awakened the wider world to a rich tradition of Swedish crime writing, and were adapted for a series of TV shows and films.

A Swedish TV series was started in 2005, but it was the BBC's decision to adapt the 'Wallander' stories in 2008 that really set the ball rolling.

Kenneth Branagh was chosen to play world-weary southern Swedish detective Kurt Wallander after he met author Henning Mankell at a film festival and asked for his casting approval.

It proved an inspired choice, because Branagh has been superb in a series that continues to win wide critical acclaim.

His Wallander is an archetypal Nordic sleuth. He's divorced, personally disorganised, depressed, unhealthy and addicted to alcohol and junk food.

He doesn't have many friends, and his interactions with women have been uniformly disastrous, but one thing Wallander is good at is solving crimes, and he does so obsessively.

The 'Wallander' shows are full of telling details and unexpected psychological insights.

The impact of crime on extended families and the policemen is examined, and Wallander himself is deeply troubled both by past cases and by his relationship with his father, an unstable artist who's painted the same landscape scene more than 7,000 times.

The Swedish TV series based on Henning's 'Wallander' stories has a darker mood and less glossy production values, but featured a superb central performance from stage actor Krister Henriksson.

The extraordinary thing about the Nordic dramas by comparison with British and American ones is their daringly slow pacing.

In 'Borgen' -- the gripping political drama which will return for a new series on BBC4 later this year -- a bizarre set of circumstances involving a sudden death, an indiscrete lover and labyrinthine behind-the-scenes skulduggery results in the election of Denmark's first female prime minister.

Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a formidable woman, but faced blackmail, marital problems and a whispering campaign in a brilliantly spun-out first series.

The refusal to simplify complex stories into bite-sized, ad-friendly packages is another distinguishing mark of the Nordic TV drama.

In the first series of 'The Killing', Detective Inspector Sarah Lund was looking forward to leaving the Copenhagen Police Department to begin a new life in Sweden with her fiancé when she's forced to take on a complex final case.

A 19-year-old girl called Nanna Birk Larsen turns up raped and murdered in a forest, and Sarah is dragged into a tortuous investigation that almost destroys her.

Over 20 densely plotted but riveting episodes, we met Nanna's devastated family, some of Sarah's more unsavoury colleagues, and a local politician called Troels Hartmann who seems to be connected with the crime.

So elaborately plotted was the drama that after it finished screening on BBC4, agitated viewers started contacting the station to find out who'd done it.

And Sarah didn't win either -- despite solving the crime she fell foul of political interference and got demoted, starting series two as a humble passport controller on the Danish-German border.

You wouldn't get that on 'CSI', and a US version of 'The Killing' has proved problematic, with American critics growing tired of minute twists and turns and yearning for simple resolutions.

As they should know, that's not the Scandinavian way.

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