Saturday, January 12, 2013

Nuanced Noir: The Killing (The Danish Version)

Recently, an article in The New Yorker profiled the popularity of Danish television in the UK. They focused particularly on three programs: Borgen, a political thriller; The Bridge, a police procedural; and The Killing, a show that is both a political thriller and a police procedural. But The Killing also adds a third element which is domestic drama. The author, Lauren Collins, collectively describes them as “a minutely detailed diorama of urban life” comparable to The Wire. With respect to The Killing, the only Danish program that I have seen, the analogy seems apt given its multiple narratives, its town-hall corruption and its exploration of social tensions.

The popularity of The Killing (or Forbrydelsen) in the UK is undeniable. Over the course of the first season broadcast in the fall of 2011, audience ratings doubled. When the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall during their Scandinavian tour in March 2012 arrived in Copenhagen, the Duchess expressed a wish to visit the set of The Killing where she was received by both the cast and crew. Given that the American remake of the program, relocated to Seattle that resulted in at best mixed reviews (I have not seen this version), is the first season of the original series good enough to invest twenty hours of your time? I think a case can be made that The Killing is exceptional television and that viewers are richly rewarded.

What makes The Killing unique is that its long narrative arc, with Nordic noir elements, explores a single case. There is of course the police investigation of the murdered teenage schoolgirl, but that thread is developed in conjunction with the crime’s effect on the grieving parents and its relationship with the machinations of municipal politicians, their advisors and political journalists during an election. What also sets this program apart is the steady pace that does not require verbal fireworks, witty repartee or a bombardment of pulsating action. A powerful tension is sustained throughout in this gritty drama using sparse dialogue, meaningful silence and character development. The actors communicate their thoughts and emotions exceptionally well through their body language. While her husband embodies taciturnity and reserve, watch how Pernille, (Ann Eleonora Jorgenson) the grieving mother communicates numbness, guilt about how little she knew about her daughter’s life, growing anger, suspicion and finally calmness with an economy of dialogue. Yet perhaps more important than solving the case is the emotional toll; no one is left undamaged, many are devastated by the end of the series.

Sofie Grabol as Sarah Lund
This is particularly true of the detective Sarah Lund played brilliantly by Sofie Grabol. Lund provides new meaning to the word relentless as with a burning intensity she doggedly pursues any lead. She is willing to sacrifice her professional and her personal life - her son, lover and mother, even her sanity - if it interferes with the case. A tightly wound woman, she has no time for small talk, friendship or empathy with the designs of others. She rarely if ever smiles. When her ambitious partner, who initially was tapped to be her replacement after she decided to join her lover in Sweden and is resentful of her when she does not leave, gradually comes to respect her skills over the course of the investigation and attempts a grudging friendship, she makes it difficult. Often when he or anyone else is speaking to her, except with respect to the suffering of others, she remains uncommunicative or simply walks out of the room. But when she enters a crime scene, she silently stalks the space and sees in a tiny detail something significant that has been missed by everyone else. Despite some dead ends, for the most part, her tenacity results in her being right. She could never be accused of complacency. At one point when the case appears to be resolved, seeds of doubt creep over her and she follows her instincts in the pursuit of the truth regardless of the consequences.

Some viewers may be exasperated by the apparent red herrings that punctuate the series. Repeatedly, certain clues give rise to suspicion of a person who is questioned; the press reports that follow imply guilt and then evidence exonerates the individual. The characters are frustrated by these developments. When the mayoralty candidate, Troels Hartman (Lars Mikkelsen), who himself is under suspicion at one point, asks Lund whether this case will be resolved before he retires, he is injecting a rare moment of humour into the drama. He may be also echoing the thoughts of the viewers. I did not find the blind alleys to be a problem; solving a crime requires patience and adaptability as much by the audience as by the investigators. More importantly, the identity of the perpetrator is secondary to revealing how the crime affected and changed the characters’ lives. The Killing is gripping, enthralling television at its best.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. 11 The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, will be available for readers by early February 2013.

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