Sunday, March 20, 2011

Killing Time

This past month, aside from a brief detour trying (and eventually succeeding) to solve Brian Sibley’s wonderfully fiendish Beastly Books Quiz, the days have pretty much been divided up between working on the manuscript and catching up with the 20–part Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen, doled out on BBC4 every Saturday night in two–episode instalments. The first I can’t really talk about right now, the second, once I started watching, I can’t stop enthusing about.

Following the 20–day investigation into the grisly murder of 19–year old Nanna Birk Larsen, Forbrydelsen may contain faint echoes of Prime Suspect and State of Play, once the line of enquiry leads Sofie Gråbøl’s insular police detective Sarah Lund to the forthcoming local election intrigue at City Hall, but ably manages to surpass them both. Four years on from it’s original transmission in Denmark, the BBC managed to bag Forbrydelsen and broadcast it before the inevitable American remake arrives. Thankfully Sue Deeks, the head of acquisitions at the BBC who brought in the series after the success of the French crime thriller Engrenages and Sweden’s Wallander on BBC4, has publicly stated that they’re not going to bother with this English–language version. Having seen the promos for AMC’s The Killing I can understand why.

I can’t blame AMC’s previous output, what with Mad Men and the critically lauded conspiracy drama Rubicon, which should be heading our way sometime soon, under their belts. But transplanting Forbrydelsen from Copenhagen to Seattle – which means that it was no doubt shot in Vancouver – has resulted in a drama that, from the available clips, looks like it sticks not only to the storyline but a good number of the camera angles, yet manages to look... really ordinary by comparison. What helps make Forbrydelsen such a formidable piece of work is the Danish colour palate, the understated acting and the exceptional use of Scandinavian silences that convey far more than a spew of dialogue. There’s also something wonderfully pleasing about the level of concentration a subtitled, foreign–language drama requires, especially when, as Lund and her partner Jan Meyer chase down every available lead, alibis dissolve, motives are questioned, and just about everyone remains suspect throughout.

For this reason I didn’t watch the first episodes when they were broadcast on BBC4 simply because I had got into the habit of watching subtitled dramas – most recently during the run of Wallander – on iPlayer. You forget, watching a programme in your native tongue, how often you take your eyes off the screen, whether it’s due to reaching for a coffee mug or glass to take a drink, sparking up then stunning the cigarette out in an ashtray, or whatever other distractions are available. In a dialogue–heavy scene that doesn’t really matter because you can still hear what the characters are saying, but when it comes to subtitled dramas, especially thrillers where any offhand remark may prove vital clues, that’s a different matter altogether.

Sitting at the desk, watching episodes on the computer screen instead, meant I could focus on the drama, pausing if need be or scrolling back to watch a scene again if I’d forgot to pay close enough attention. With the BBC affording Forbrydelsen their series catch–up on iPlayer, meaning episodes were available for longer than the usual seven days, I waited a while and then dove in just before the initial episodes were about to disappear. This might have been a slight mistake because right from the start watching a couple of episodes a night wasn’t enough. And then of course once I had caught up it meant waiting each week for the next instalment, eager to discover what new twists and turns the story would go through, trying to figure out the guilty parties involved. By then I had dispensed with the computer and was sitting on the sofa, eyes glued to the television screen.

Over these many weeks, following Forbrydelsen has proved to be a bittersweet experience. Coupled with the investigation, the drama shows how the parents of the murdered girl deal with their grief. Watching those scenes, the strongest of which usually played out over a despairing silence, proved to be the most poignant fictional images on television that week. Afterwards I’d try to fathom how such an exceptionally complex and moving drama could have come out of Denmark of all places. I’ve always been a fan of Waking the Dead but the start of the ninth and final season came across as over–ripe histrionics. And what else has the BBC’s drama department served up over the past couple months while Forbrydelsen has been on: the abysmal absurdity of Outcasts, the continuation of tiresome crap like Holby City and Waterloo Road. Maybe the commissioning editors at White City should be beaten and dumped in a canal while Ms Deeks is put forward for a GBE, especially now the BBC has already bought the second series of Forbrydelsen, to be shown later in the year.

Next weekend the mystery finally comes to a close with the last two episodes. It’s a date I wish I had already noted in my diary because I’d recently agreed to help out a friend and will be out of town those days. So it will mean being careful of overhearing any conversation and rushing straight to the computer the moment I eventually get back home. And after that comes the withdrawal symptoms so hopefully the BBC will make good and broadcast the third season of Engrenages to help alleviate them while I wait for Lund to return to the screen.