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.


At 7:25 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

This is a train I almost missed... caught the first episode as it started entirely by accident, and then spent three weeks away with subsequent episodes piling up on the DVR. Since we got back, we've watched nothing else, and only just caught up with the schedule in time for next week's finale. To me it's near-perfect TV, balancing an adult sensibility with a pulpish must-see narrative drive, nicely under-written and finely nuanced. The personal/professional gavotte of Lund and Meyer is like a masterclass in character work.

My only reservation is that the crises and cliffhangers in the town hall politics feel manufactured for purpose... one press release renders Troels instantly unelectable, the next press release puts him back in the lead... but f*** it, if that's the price of entry, I'm happy to pay it.

At 12:02 am, Blogger Good Dog said...


I was out with Dick Fiddy, Hattie Hayridge and a few others last week and he was, quite rightly, showering it with superlatives. Luckily there have been some great documentaries on recently because sitting down to any other drama these this past month, after a few minutes I’d sigh and think, “This isn’t as good as Forbrydelsen”. Damn!

Lund is a marvellous character and her partnership with Meyer was just superb, with her eating his bananas, him making a crack about the deterioration of her private life, and then her fumbling the small talk with his wife in the latest episode. They both pissed each other off but just got on with it. The same has been true of Theis and Pernille Birk Larsen. Theis arriving at the crime scene and being held back by police reminded me of the scene in Mystic River with Sean Penn’s character breaking into the park, but without the overblown howling and wailing, just his stricken wife on the end of the phone instead. The scene, pretty much played out in silence, with just a touch of music, where he confirms to his wife their daughter is dead was just devastating. As was when they’re in the police interview room and the adjoining door is accidentally left open, allowing them to glimpse the crime scene photos. Then there was Theis wearing his Superman tee-shirt as he eats the bowl of soup in the mission, and Pernille near catatonic in the hotel room after they start to unravel... The list is pretty much endless.

In the US version the father is played by the guy who was Charlie Crews’ partner before he went to prison in Life. A good choice, maybe, but I doubt he’ll match the brooding intensity or stillness of the original Danish actor. I agree that the political manoeuvring has been the weakest element at times but they eventually addressed some of the concerns I had from earlier episodes, and I love the way that I still don’t trust anyone even if they aren’t the murderer.

It’s a bugger that I’ll be up at the NEC on the weekend helping out a good friend who is one of the guest bookers. Maybe instead of hanging out at the hotel bar in the evening I’ll be locked in my room with the phone off he hook and my mobile on silent.

At 11:39 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Just had a nose around the Radio Times website, checked the listings for Saturday 02 April. Although there are still a lot of TBAs dotted about the schedules, BBC4 has what appears to be the new series of Engrenages - showing two episodes back-to-back - in the slots vacated by Forbrydelsen. Huzzah!

At 12:30 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Huzzah indeed!

And boo to blogger, which has just lost my 3 paragraph response...

At 12:02 am, Blogger Valentine Suicide said...

I've also been watching an enjoying, and won't watch the English language version. Removing the alien elements of a less known city; a less known culture dilutes it. I can also relate to the criticisms of the cliffhangers, where 'is-it-or-isn't-it' Troels has the spotlight of suspicion added or removed. Put me in mind of '24'.

That said, Lund is a superb, enigmatic heroine (is she returning in another?), and the weight of Scandinavian grief makes the Birk Larsen family scenes unbearable.
The relief was palpable when Theis stopped the van for screen-wash.

I've not watched the latest two, and intend to have a four episode blitz on Sunday.

At 2:17 am, Blogger Good Dog said...


Big boo to blogger! Having lost enough comments to a blog and private messaging on the damnable facebook, I’ve got into the habit of writing everything in a new word doc and copying and pasting.


Yeah, you’re spot on with the lesser–known culture adding to the intrigue and making you focus more. One of the great things about Engrenages was getting an insight into the operating procedures of the French judicial system. Not that I really care because I’m not going to be watching it, but I wonder how the American version will deal with the much less “touchy–feely” Scandinavian introspection, especially when it comes to something like what Troels was actually doing on the weekend.

As well as Theis stopping the van for the screen–wash, Pernille screaming at the priest, “She should be here with me,” when he tried to comfort her by saying that Nanna was with God, and then later, her sudden realization of her daughter’s grave’s proximity to the water, were just gut wrenching.

Lund is back for the second series along with just some of the coppers. I’m trying not to read too much about this but there was an interesting piece on The Guardian website about how the drama was being broadcast in Denmark before the final episodes had been filmed so Sofie Gråbøl couldn’t tell members of the public who stopped her in the street who the killer was because she hadn’t had the scripts yet let alone shot the scenes.

A very cautious examination of IMDb shows the second series came two years after the first, in 2009, which implies they didn’t rush into another investigation simply to cash in on the success of the first one. And, joy upon joy, it looks like they’re in pre-production of a third year to be shown in 2012. Hopefully Sue Deeks has authorised a cheque for that.

Enjoy your final weekend blitz.

At 2:04 am, Blogger qrter said...

My mum has just finished watching the first series and absolutely loved it. She watched them on DVD, and I believe it was the first time she experienced the "binging on multiple episodes" DVD-set effect.

Her birthday was last week, so I gave her the second series on DVD, with a warning that the third series won't even start showing on Danish TV til september 2012..

Also funny you mention Waking The Dead - another crime thing my mum has always been a huge fan of, and it also crossed with her watching Forbrydelsen, and she did say WTD seemed kind of silly next to it.I told her Mad Men ruined me for other drama's, in a similar vein.

Another series she's a huge fan of is the original Wallander (she watches the Branagh versions but doesn't really see the point) - I remember walking in on her watching an episode, and I was struck by how beautiful it looked, how stylishly it was filmed without being ostentatious. There's a certain sense of.. restraint there, which is missing from UK and US series, and it's very appealing.

At 3:02 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Well fella, after a rocking good weekend – which was just the thing I needed after the past four months felt like a skunk had sprayed in my face – I got back and watched the final two episodes immediately on BBC iPlayer. And damn that was a really spectacular piece of television drama.

I noticed afterwards that in the broadsheet reviews all the English broadsheet refused to give up the name of the killer noting that people should catch the series on DVD when it comes out, except... The Daily Telegraph where the buffoon gave it all away. What a complete dope. What an arse!

I’m glad your mum really liked it. Much as I would love to go straight into the second series I’m glad to wait for the return of Sarah Lund until later in the year. When it comes to dramas like this you really want time to savour them. It’s like reading a really great book and patiently waiting for the author to take their time and deliver the goods again rather than just knock off a rush job that won’t be as satisfying. And of course the sooner we get the second instalment, the longer we have to wait for the third. But I don’t doubt it will be worth it in the end.

I watched the latest episode of Waking the Dead a couple of hours after Forbrydelsen. Again, it was okay–ish but... I suppose every drama has its day. The good thing is to still like them but always to be on the look out for something better or different as well. Oh, and how long are we going to have to wait until the next season of Mad Men? It looks like the contracts still haven’t been signed. But then again, it will be worth it.

I felt exactly the same way about the UK version of Wallander. I saw the first few and then missed – or didn’t really pay attention – to when it came around again. The colour palette was certainly striking, and in one of those first few episodes (probably the last one) Kenneth Branagh gave an astonishing performance of someone on the verge on clinical depression/a complete breakdown, much like Paul Giamatti’s scene with his ex-wife towards the end of Sideways where she’s telling him all her good news and in his fixed, forced smile you can see someone falling to pieces inside, but the originals are still better because the dourness is reflected in the look of the piece – in both the environments and characters – rather than what is said.

Two wonderful moments from the last episodes of Forbrydelsen were both virtually wordless – the reveal of the hooded jacket as it was zipped up and the characters’ reactions followed by that utterly chilling line of dialogue, and the line of torches appearing through the trees before the twsited confession that didn’t spell everything out because the killer simply wasn’t a rational human being. I wonder how they would have been dealt with in an English drama and how obtrusive the music on the soundtrack would have been? Although I can’t be bothered with the American remake it might be interesting to see the final episode at some point to see how they deal with it. Will they make it just as anguished and hopeless or will they fudge it to let the audiences know there’s an explanation for everything in life and we can go to bed and sleep soundly? We’ll see.

And on that note, a belated Happy Birthday to your mum.

At 1:11 pm, Blogger noelaspill said...

I agree with all the praise for Forbrydelsen on this blog. The acting was so uniformly superb that it seems invidious to pick out individual performances. Sofie Grabol et al richly deserve all the plaudits they have earned but for my money the most astonishing performance was by Ann Eleonora Jorgensen in the part of Pernille, the victims mother.

Not only did she portray grief economically and movingly but she moved and deepened that grief through the series in a way that I can not imagine an English actress achieving.

I still miss the series several weeks later.

Noel Aspill



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