Sunday, 28 September 2008


The Icelandic film Jar City has just opened in Britain, almost exactly one year after it debuted at the Ritzy in Brixton as part of the London Flim Festival. I wrote then, in my Crime Time film column, that it was one of the very best films in the 2007 Festival, certainly the best crime movie I saw. It's adapted, of course, from the novel by Arnauldur Indridason, originally released as Jar City in English, but since retitled, for reasons that escape me, Tainted Blood. If you're interested, I reviewed his latest, Arctic Chill, just recently here.

Indridason's detective, Erlendur (literally, no one) has a name which also reminds one of Henning Mankell's Wallender, and is very much in that Scandinavian tradition, which goes back to Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck, of cops as obsessive everymen, alienated from much of the world, whose persistence results in solving crimes whose implications reacher deeper into their societies than was at first apparent. Director Baltasar Koramakur (who also wrote the screenplay) emphasizes this with visual aplomb, presenting a heavy, gray landscape and dull, confining interiors which match the lives of both cops and victims. Everything lies in shadows, of dusk or dawn in a country with endless nights in winter, and it's as if it is somehow wrong that crimes should be revealed during this night. Ingvar E Sigurdsson, as Erlendur, all shaggy sweaters and plodding professorial glumness, establishes the tone of melancholy as the case of a murdered thug begins to coincide with a father's search for genetic information about his daughter's death from brain disease. Of course the plots are intertwined, but the story is all about family relationships, and the lengths Icelandic people will or won't go to protect them.

Remember, Iceland is a very small, very closed society, a point made at the Genetic Research headquarters, where it is explained that they provide a unique sort of sample. Remember too that Icelanders are known mostly by patronymics, their names, their very selves are defined by who their parents were, and in such a small society, this is a serious responsibility, and one that extends beyond typically Scandinavian reserve. Erlendur's daughter, perhaps a junkie, pregnant by an unknown father, tests the reality of this world as much as either of the deaths Erlendur investigates.

The Iceland of this movie is a dull, dreary place. It's landscapes are gaunt, hard, cold. The modern buildings only slightly less so. Even the Genetic Centre, which should be all gleaming glass and polished steel, seems more like a hiding place, an artificial world of concealment, producing its own shadows. The brilliance of Koramakur is not that he has made, as more than one reviewer couldn't resist from quipping, an 'Inspector Norse', but the opposite: his Iceland is not the cozy society whose gardens are upset by something as perverse as a crime. Cozy isn't a word that applies to his vision, even though his country is small, homogenous, and self-contained. This is a real, a tough, an unforgiving world, in which the pressures of protecting the things which society holds at its centre, can have tragic consequences. That a genetically on-passed disease lies at the root of the story, merely intensifies this, and there is the sense, as the film ends, that this is the sort of Nordic tragedy an earlier Erlendur might contemplate around a winter fire, once its been turned into a typically Norse saga of vengeance. But I just love the way the Icelandic poster (see above) makes it look like something completely different--Ibsen, if not Widerberg!

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