Is Scandi Noir all played out? Sofia Helin, Saga Noren from The Bridge, doesn’t think so…
It has been less than five years since The Killing was first shown on BBC4, but it feels like many more. In that time, crime drama, television’s most popular genre, has changed. Watch River, Abi Morgan’s most recent BBC detective story, or From Darkness, or just about anything from the past three years that chronicles a murder and isn’t set in Midsomer, and it will have Scandinavian DNA.
Or watch the various remakes of the Scandi classics: The Bridge, the US version of the Swedish/ Danish hit, ran for two seasons on FX from 2013. The Killing was remade almost word for word in America, and went on for four series, one more than the Danish version managed. The Tunnel, on Sky, another Bridge remake, is soon to begin a second series and has been both a critical and ratings hit. These, in turn, have prompted US and UK attempts to do it ourselves, such as Netflix’s Steven Van Zandt oddity Lilyhammer and, you could argue, the BBC’s The Fall. Scandinavian crime drama, its tropes and its aesthetic, have gone global.
The problem now is that “Scandi noir”, once so distinctive, has become a victim of its own success. The tropes that were initially so enticing have become commonplace — every crime drama seems to be suffused with darkness, both literal and metaphorical. Each has an impeccably maintained aesthetic, and often a distant, complex female protagonist. There is a lot more rain, a lot more concrete, than there used to be. There is a lot more concentration on the desolation of the victims of crime, rather than just a manhunt for the perpetrators. Many of these were welcome changes. It’s just that they’re not changes any more.
Slowly, the breakout stars of Scandi noir have been absorbed into the mainstream. Noomi Rapace, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen and Pilou Asbaek have all worked in Hollywood; Sofie Grabol went from The Killing to British dramas such as Fortitude, and even a production by the National Theatres of Scotland and England. Behind the camera, many of the movers and shakers have also looked west: Birger Larsen, the director of The Killing and Those Who Kill, made the excellent Murder: Joint Enterprise for BBC2. Hans Rosenfeldt, writer of The Bridge, has just penned Marcella, a crime drama for ITV starring Anna Friel.
When it comes to a new, third series of The Bridge, the question is, where next? The close of the second series saw the detective Saga Noren (Sofia Helin), she of the painful social awkwardness and the clumpy walk, send her partner and only friend, Martin (Kim Bodnia), to prison, dobbing him in for poisoning the psychopath who had murdered his son when she could have let him walk. It was a marvellous ending, one that took the series onto an emotional high wire, but it also split up one of the best partnerships on television.
Where on earth could a third series go without Martin? Where, indeed, might Scandinavian crime drama go now? Haven’t we consumed all it has to offer, co-opted it to our own ends, and tack for the memories?
When I meet Helin, she has a mild hangover. She was at the Swedish embassy in London the night before, in celebration of her role as one of the country’s finest cultural exports. This, she says, is a marked improvement on how she felt after finishing filming as Saga, a character whose only nod to hygiene is to strip off in front of her colleagues and swap one grey T-shirt for another.
“In the end, when I’ve been her for such a long time, with the same clothes every day, no make-up, no nothing, I feel like an old sock — dusty and used.”
Helin is straight-talking and abrupt. Her sentences finish suddenly, with a nod, a little like Saga, who has marked traits of Asperger’s and is apt to say things exactly as they are, without irony or exaggeration. (“If you ask her ‘Can you pass me your cup of coffee?’, she would say ‘Yes, I can’, but do nothing,” is how Helin describes it.)
She admits that the decision to leave Martin, many people’s favourite character, out of the third series was against the wishes of Bodnia, the actor who plays him. “The author [Rosenfeldt] and Kim disagreed about the continuation of these characters, and so at an early stage we had to start rethinking. That was a painful and hard process, but it was the best thing that could have happened to the show, because we got new energy in.”
Last night, in the show’s opening double bill, Saga got a new partner. That may not sound like a complete reinvention of the genre, but in the world of the show, it was a significant shift. It remains to be seen how the new man goes down with UK audiences pining for Martin. In Sweden, at least, ratings have risen and reviews have been good.
“So now I can say it without feeling scared, that it was a good thing,” Helin says. “You come to a point where you have to renew yourself. This was that point.”
She rejects the suggestion that Scandinavian noir itself is all played out. First, she sees no need to apologise for some of the things that have become its staples. “What I’m happy about is seeing middle-aged women on screen, finally — not in magazines, but on screen.”
Helin is 43. Sofie Grabol was also 43 when The Killing was first shown here. Helin mentions that, in America, her role was given to a younger actress. (Diane Kruger got the part.) “That’s a shame — they lose a lot of experience from that. I’ve heard that Diane Kruger didn’t want to see me doing what I did, and that she was told not to be too masculine. I mean, that’s a weird thing to hear. You should be free to do it as you want.”
Helin sees what we call Scandi noir as the beginning of a process, one that started in Denmark, extended to her own Sweden (The Bridge is a joint Danish/ Swedish production and was one of the first dual-language shows) and is now spreading through Europe. She cites the period thriller she is now filming, called The Same Sky, as an example of the way that good Scandi practice is becoming the norm in European TV. It is written by our own Paula Milne, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) and made by the German production company behind Generation War.
Helin says the Scandinavian way of drafting in top writers and directors from cinema is Scandi noir’s real legacy. “We are pushing each other, I hope. I know that in the 1990s, BBC crime series were giant in Scandinavia, so I think we have been inspired by you. Now we have taken it even further, and it’s the other way around. We [Scandinavians] have high ambitions, and of course that makes other people want to have that as well. Isn’t it always like that — if you have one good tennis player, everyone else gets better?”
The next step, as she sees it, is closer collaboration across Europe. Scandi noir, in her take, will cease to be a genre once genuine cross-European television drama becomes a reality.
“It would be fantastic if we started working together more. As the world is getting so small, and we are speaking your language, yes, we could work together more. That’s what I hope for, because in Scandinavia it’s hard to get money. We are such a small country. We need to collaborate more.”
The Bridge season three is on BBC4 on Saturdays at 9pm
This article appeared in The Sunday Times Culture section