The Bridge is latest ‘Nordic noir’ masterpiece
Scandinavian crime drama, in both literary and television form, is having something of a renaissance in Britain. Although ‘Nordic Noir’ has been popular over here for years thanks to Henning Mankell’s Wallander, it is really thanks to Steig Larson and the Millenium Trilogy that many of us are now aware of the utter brilliance of Scandinavian crime drama.
The latest offering from the region is The Bridge, aired on BBC Four on Saturday nights. If you liked The Killing then yes, you will probably like The Bridge. But speaking as someone whose social life was seriously effected by Sarah Lund’s fluffy jumpers and vacant stare, I feel confident in telling you this: The Bridge is pure Scandi-brilliance.
Brought to you by both Sweden and Denmark (that is like the makers of Wallander and The Killing producing a love child that you can watch on iPlayer) The Bridge opens on Øresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen and Malmo. The lights on the bridge suddenly go out and the body of a woman is found, equally spread over the Danish and the Swedish side. The police from both countries turn up, Denmark lead by the laid back and charming Martin Rhode, and Sweden represented by the cold Saga Noren. As the body is moved by the Swedish authorities is noted that that body has been cut in half. It is soon discovered that the top half-the Swedish half- is that of a local Malmo politician. The bottom half over the border in Denmark is that of a young prostitute. The difference between these two women? When the politician is found dead the police act quickly. When the young prostitute goes missing a year earlier the Danish police lazily cancel the investigation after only two weeks. It seems our killer has a point to make. We discover in the first two episodes that this point is “Unequal in the Law” – we are not, despite our best social democratic intentions – treated equally in the law. But we soon find out he has another four ‘points’ to make before the series ends. By the end of episode two we quickly discover the second point is treatment of the homeless – which he does by poisoning ten homeless people.
There are three main reasons by The Bridge is fast becoming the best thing to ever happen, and it mainly boils down to the characters.
Danish Rhode has a two-fingers-up-approach to police work and rules. That is, he does what he wants, when he wants. That means walking in to rooms he isn’t allowed in, saying things to people he shouldn’t and generally being a lovable rogue. He is also unbelievably fertile, confessing he has 5 children from 3 different women, and getting his wife pregnant with number 6. All this has lead to him having a painful vasectomy, which results in him spending much of episode one rubbing his nether-regions and groaning. Even better though, when he comes face to face with our serial killer he gets a painful kick in the groin from said serial killer, knocking out the stiches and leaving poor Rhode out of action for a short while. It also suggests that the killer knows Rhode and knows he has had this surgery. The plot thickens.
Then there is Swedish Noren. Did you like Lisbeth Sander’s complete lack of human empathy and super logical brain? Thought Sarah Lund was obsessive about her police work? You will love Noren. When asked by Rhode if she has any children she looks at him blankly and replies “No, why would I?” Later on when Rhode is pressing her for details of her evening previously she admits to having had sex before they go on a mission to a slaughter house. Rhode seems surprised she had time to fit that in, to which she replies (with absolutely no expression on her face at all) “but it doesn’t take that long.” That is nothing compared to her conversation with the husband of the Malmo politician, who she has been tasked by informing his wife has been found dead. Upon enquiring into any possible enemies he explains she was unpopular for introducing fines on library books. She looks and him and explains “that is a terrible idea. You will make reading a money matter.” Simples.
Yes they are coppers, yes they fulfill nearly every stereotype out there, but they are characters you can like, and if you can’t like your main characters then you show doesn’t stand a chance.
It is a steaming critique of the Nordic social democracies. In fact, that is a pre-requisite of any Scandinavian crime drama, de facto. They are nearly always overtly political, even when they don’t seem to be. Scandinavian countries have very developed welfare states- good. They tend to be rotten to the core- bad. So through the medium of incredibly thrilling crime drama we are invited in to observe how the Nordic welfare state is tied up in hideous neo-liberal political careers. The police nearly always come out looking bad too. This all stems from the work of Sjowell and Wahloo in the 1960’s, the original Marxist Swedish crime writers. Well before Steig Larsson, these writers created crime novels that critiqued the Swedish Welfare State from the Marxist perspective. The tradition runs thick through The Bridge.
Which brings me to three. Indeed our main characters are often the decent cops, but in general the rule of thumb for a decent Scandinavian crime drama requires the police to come out looking ridiculous. Henning Mankell explained his rationale for creating alcoholic, unlovable and egotistical Wallander was to prove “it is so hard to be a good police officer”. Even if your main character turns out to be a good guy (despite some pretty major character flaws in all of them) the institution is always corrupt and rotten. In the case of The Bridge the Danish police are currently coming off looking pretty bad, with a missing prostitute ignored and a huge cover up of racist police violence underway. Of course it isn’t only the Nordic countries that suffer from this stuff, but they do make such fantastic T.V. about it.
There are many, many reasons why The Bridge is the most compulsive and watchable T.V. since The Killing. You don’t have to stay in on Saturday nights, you can also catch it on iPlayer. If you have a strong stomach, a pre-existing mistrust of the police and you don’t insist on trying to work out who-dunnit I would seriously recommend you watching The Bridge. The opening song is also fantastic.
Did you read The Millennium Triology and decide you totally love Nordic Noir, but have yet to read anything else? Here are some recommendations:
Jussi Adler-Olsen writes disgusting, gory and mildly outrageous novels, set in Denmark.
Camilla Lackberg is hugely popular in her native Sweden, but less well known over here. She writes excellent crime novels from the point of view of a crime writer.
Jo Nesbo is a rock star god in his native Norway, as well as an economist and creater of the Harry Hole series. His novels are truly amazing, except his one-off thriller Headhunters, which was outstandingly bad.