Monday, 28 February 2011


BBC4 has now reached the halfway point, ten episodes, of the exceptional Danish crime drama The Killing. It follows in the wake of the Scandinavian crime boom, the Swedish and British Wallander shows, the Millennium films, and the best-sellers by Mankell, Larsson, Jo Nesbo, and others. But in fact, it's already nearly four years old, first shown in Denmark in 2007, and while it shares many of the characteristics of its Nordic peers, The Killing has a lot more in common with a number of Danish films, and some other European series, than with that new wave of Scandicrime.

A high-school girl is found raped, tortured, and murdered, in a car sunk into a lake outside Copenhagen. The car belongs to the city's leading opposition political party, who are beginning a reform campaign in the mayoral elections. The case is picked up by detective Sarah Lund, on her last day on the job before moving with her son to Sweden, to live with her boyfriend and work in the Swedish police. It's a simple story, which begins to take on multiple layers of complexity and emotion.

Of course the first thing that stands out is the format, 20 one-hour episodes, like a Bizzaro version of 24, which allows those layers to develop. What this amount of time provides is the opportunity to approach the one thing which is hardest to do in the television format: inner feelings, and also allows the programme to deal in the 'real-time', or longer term, effects of the crime. Which by the way is what the Danish title, Forbrydelsen, means, not 'the killing'. This allows one of the three main strands of the narrative, the story of the family of the teenaged girl who's been killed, to carry equal weight with the other two: the search for the killer, and the effect of the crime on the politics of Copenhagen, especially as the reform mayoral candidate, Troels Hartmann, becomes a suspect.

The police procedural part conforms best to the nordic crime mould, especially since Lund (Sofie Grabol) is a good cop, both thorough and instinctive. Grabol is able to appear both inspired and overwhelmed at the same time, a rare talent in an actor, and is completely believeable as a cop, even when wlaking around in that Faroese sweater that apparently has become a fashion item in Demark. When the show begins, she is partnered with her successor, Jan Meyer, who appears to be neither of those things. She is also obsessive, to the detriment of her family; she is Martin Beck or Wallander. What is interesting is the way each relationship in each strand in the film is put under pressure: Lund's with her Swedish police psychologist boyfriend (as well as her new work partner); the victim's parents with each other in their grief, and Hartmann's with his girlfriend and campaign manager Rie.

The format makes it an actors' series, and the actors do not disappoint. They have the advantage of looking real, never like actors playing roles, which was the biggest fault with the BBC Wallander. Bjarne Henricksen and Ann Elenora Jorgensen, as the parents of the murdered Anna Birk Larsen, are spectacularly believable, which makes both her grief, and his ill-judged vengeance in the early episodes, powerfully moving. Crime dramas don't often stay focused on the families of the lost, unless revenge is the reason, and in this case the internal family crisis is every bit as much of a thriller as the hunt for the killer. There is also the subtle parallel with the single-mother status of Lund, whose son does not want to move to Sweden, whose ex has just reappeared on the scene, and whose mother appears to consider her a totally unfit parent.

The Swedish boyfriend was a figure of some humour, if I'm picking up on the use of accents—the precise formality of Swedish against the sing-songy, clipped words and slurred contractions of Danish. But his analysis of the killings, that they are the work of someone who has killed before, and who has planned carefully, is what provides the real depth of the second-half of the story, or at least will when Lund finally gets around to acting on the ideas (as of episode 12 she has still ignored what is presuemably evidence of other murders by the same killer).

It is also what makes Lars Mikkelsen's performance as Hartmann so stunning, because he has established himself as a decent man, as a cunning manipulator, as a put-upon victim and as a viable suspect, all in the space of four episodes. Mikkelsen is probably the most, if not only, familiar face to most English viewers, from Flame and Citron, Island of Lost Souls, or The Kings Game (all of which I reviewed, from the London Film Festival, for Crime Time) and in fact it is as if he has stepped out of The King's Game, a seriously over-looked political thriller. Because politics lies at the heart of everything the Hartmann does, and, we suspect, everything that is happening to him. In that, his relationship with Rie (played by Marie Askehave with some glamour, which in the context makes her immediately suspicious) is perfect: she is a political insider, her father is a power-broker, her glamour suggests the lack of ideals which Hartmann professes, but may psychopathically be betraying.

It's a rich mixture, whose intelligence makes it compelling viewing. The Killing appears to be gaining the kind of word of mouth traction that channels like BBC4 are supposed to provide. In much the same way as the Swedish Wallander and the exceptional first series of the French Spiral, it proves that there are all sorts of approaches to the crime genre, and that many of old formulae which have carried British TV for so long are no longer automatically 'the best TV in the world' as I've heard echoed for decades by people who appear ever to have seen a foreign show unless it were American. And of course, speaking of America, there have already been comparisons made to The Wire, but The Killing is a very different thing. Yes, both shows essay a novelistic approach, but the means are different, the formats are different, the societies are different, and the portrayals of corruption are different; it is less endemic in The Killing, as if the society still harbours hope behind its political corruptions. In The Wire, the killings were part of a more total breakdown. In The Killing, it may be only the suggestion of the fissures starting to show.

This article will also appear at Crime Time (

1 comment :

Ali Karim said...

Excellent feature about an excellent TV series - Ali