The following review contains some spoilers…
Last week V and & finished watching the first series of the renowned 2007 Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen, aka The Killing, written by Soren Sveistrup. I’d heard a number of anecdotal reports about what a great show this was from my parents and various others, but hadn’t quite separated its potential stand-out quality from my general dislike of crime dramas. The sheer amount of second-rate CSI-type pap out there has, quite rightly, made me extremely wary of the genre. Indeed, I’ve long been spmewhat disgusted by the pornographic and gratuitous manner in which they titillate their audiences with lurid details of rape and murder; so akin to the base and irresponsible reporting of the commercial news channels and rags we foolishly grant the title of newspapers in Australia.
From the moment we began watching Forbrydelsen, however, it was clear that something very refreshingly different was going on. If there was a spectrum of quality, measured primarily on realism and characterisation, then this show sat roughly eight miles along from the best English crime drama, with its American counterparts so far behind those as to be only detectable by their own implausibly neat forensics techniques. Forbrydelsen, it was clear from the start, was not merely good, it was the shit.
When we first sat down to watch it, we were a little baffled. Wasn’t this show Danish? If so, why did all the names sound so un-Scandinavian? We watched the opening thriller sequence in which a woman is chased through the woods to her impending, yet unseen demise, followed by an introduction to what was no doubt our blonde, good-cop female protagonist, looking strong, capable, quietly determined, fit and utterly in control of her life, out for a morning jog. Then she opened her mouth. Oh dear, this was the American version. Yep, and it showed.
A few peers and seeders later and we plugged in the USB to fire up the Danish version. Within seconds the vast gulf between quality European television and American drama was revealed. After a repeat of the frightening and chilling chase through the woods, we meet our brunette female good-cop protagonist – waking up from a disturbed sleep, tired and worn out, staggering around the house in her pyjamas, checking on her teenage son who is sleeping on the lounge in front of a static-filled television screen. A single mum, we soon meet her Swedish partner, also in his pyjamas, also waking up tired and worn out, stumbling through the dark amidst the boxes of her and her son’s belongings, all packed and ready to move to Sweden for a new life. Our protagonist, Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) smiles warmly when reassured that everything about the move will be ok, but we can see in her relief the fear and vulnerability that she carries with her; her anxiety and tension, the complexity and disarray of her domestic circumstances. None of it is glamorous, none of what we see establishes her as anything other than a real person who, like everybody else out there, has to deal with the banal and quotidian demands of real life.
We paused a moment here and let out a collective sigh of relief. Wow, how much more engaging and promising the original version seemed. Even after just four minutes of viewing the American remake, it was clear that it was going to be Forbrydelsen lite, the airbrushed, sanitised version in which its audience would not be challenged to accept that the flaws of the protagonist were not big ticket things like, for example, Carrie Mathison’s bipolar disorder in Homeland or the utterly contrived and unconvincing OCD of Hannah Horvath in the disappointing second half of Girls season 2, so clearly tacked on for want of a decent plotline. Instead, in Forbrydelsen, we were going to be treated to everyday pressures.
I should digress at this point to say that I found Homeland and Girls to be excellent, high quality television. Both of these shows also have great characterisation and, particularly in the case of the latter, elements of gritty realism. Yet whereas the former does this within an overtly sensational story in an airbrushed, suburban and upper-echelon America and the latter does so in an occasionally all too smug, convenient and self-congratulatory potpourri of zeitgeist, Forbrydelsen had the balls to develop its characters and story with the slow and almost painfully intimate realism that fans of quality Scandinavian cinema, drama and lit will recognise. Like a good Lukas Moodysson film or a Knut Hamsun novel, Forbrydelsen, made an epic not just of the crime investigation itself, but of the domestic turmoil that surrounds such a shocking crime and its toe-treading, home-invading investigative process.
For the uninitiated, here is a juicy detail about this show. There are twenty, one-hour episodes to cover ONE CRIME. I can’t pretend to have the numbers, but within that roughly twenty hours there must be almost two hours total spent in the homely kitchen of the devastated family whose daughter, Nanna Birk Larsen, was the victim. Their tears are real, their emotions utterly genuine, the detail of their experience is deliciously heart-breaking.
There is no one thing which makes this show so great. It is the writing, the direction, the acting, the music, the muted colours and dull uniformity of Copenhagen in November. The performances throughout are almost universally excellent. No one character is two-dimensional; all have their flaws, conflicts, quirks and idiosyncrasies, none of which seem cheaply contrived or tacked on to create some shallow show of complexity. These characters are simply convincingly real and complex, and not in the way that characters have complexity, but in the way that real people do:
Troels Hartmann, the mayoral candidate, who soon falls under suspicion, bearing up under the weight of hiding his loss and depression, is an alluring mix of ambition and self-doubt; of integrity and political game-playing.
Jan Meyer, Lund’s mercurial partner, whose initial rough edge is ultimately contrasted with the convincing softness of a father desperate to hold down a job and provide for his family.
Pernille, the mother of the victim, whose face is always grippingly pregnant with withheld or unleashed emotion, the longing for revenge or satisfaction, the need for answers, juggling her husband Theiss’ flaws, her children’s needs, the pressures on their removal business and her family’s apparent duplicity.
And of course the very excellent Sarah Lund, our struggling protagonist, whose decision to stay in Copenhagen until the case is solved puts immense pressure on her family and relationship, and whose determination and stubbornness constantly rub against those with whom she works and is trying to help. The hardness of her character is extraordinary and constantly compelling. Her rough edges, her mistakes, her clever instincts, her obsessive nature, all emerge as the convincing traits of a plausible character.
In Forbrydelsen, even the cast of supporting characters is excellent. Take, for example, the Mayor of Copenhagen, Bremer, whose smug sniping and cutting quips leave the audience constantly wondering what lies behind the mask of bemused confidence. Lund’s long-suffering mother, concerned and interfering, at times bitchy and cruel, at times deserving of great sympathy on account of her daughter’s thoughtless impositions. The list goes on, but the conclusions are the same throughout. With no exceptions that come to mind, these are masterful performances by skilled and naturalistic actors working with clever, plausible dialogue.
The show is certainly not without flaws. There are holes and apparent inconsistencies in the story that are not all satisfyingly wrapped up. Why did Holck, an otherwise seemingly well-adjusted career politician commit such serious crimes to hide his potential exposure for a crime that was far less serious? What exactly was going on between Troels Hartmann’s advisor Rie Skovgaard and the Mayor’s advisor? What actually was the connection between the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen and the other girl murdered 15 years earlier? Would Troels’ campaign leader Morten really go to the lengths he did to cover up what he thought was Troels’ role in the murder? I was left with a lot of questions about which I am still thinking, questions that no amount of googling has managed to satisfy, other than to confirm that others have wondered the same things as I have. Yet, having said that, the fact that I am still thinking about this show and still feel gripped by its story, despite having reached the end of it, says bucketloads about its sheer excellence. I miss the characters, I miss the setting, I miss the details of the investigation, none of which can really be made up for by the second season which may be as excellent – I have yet to watch it – but will follow a different crime with a different cast of support characters, give or take the ones around whom Sarah’s life closely gravitates.
Enough said. If you’ve not seen it and enjoy watching a show that cooks slowly without ever being boring, then I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fill the fridge, keep the phone handy to call in sick, drug the kids, close the curtains and brace yourself for a serious case of “just one more episode” syndrome. It really is that good.