This is, very simply, one of the best and probably the funniest, films of the year. I laughed in recognition all the way through the film, even though I have very little experience of how 13 year-old girls behave. I was worried by that fact going in to the cinema but, of course, the experiences are universal. The three girls who shout out the title are three non-conformists in Stockholm in 1982 who tell us with force that “you may think that punk is dead – but we are here to tell you it’s alive!”. They do and it is.
Lukas Moodysson was seen as the great hope of Swedish cinema in the late 1990s when he released his first feature Fucking Åmål in 1998. That story involved two young girls bored by the limited opportunities in their local town of Åmål in Western Sweden. In the UK and US the title was changed to the mundane Show Me Love. I guess I should warn you that if you are offended by ‘bad language’ there is plenty in We Are the Best!, but the overall feel is warm and life-fulfilling. It does mean however that the film has a 15 certificate in the UK, ironically excluding its young actors from watching themselves on a cinema screen. Moodysson’s second feature was the even more successful Tilsammans (Together) in 2004. This featured a hippy commune of sorts in the mid 1970s in a gentle satire. After that Moodysson’s gaze turned to some very dark subjects which garnered critical attention but relatively small audiences.
The return to form for the popular audience comes via an adaptation of his partner’s graphic novel. Coco Moodysson’s story (drawing on her own teenage adventures) sees two teenage girls demanding to use the facilities of their local youth club to make music, even though they have no musical knowledge as such. They simply want to have the same access to facilities as the boys. Realising that they really need some input by someone who knows something and can play an instrument they approach a girl who is a year older but is generally ostracised in the school because she is a devout Christian. This is Hedwig, an intelligent girl who doesn’t like being left out and is open to persuasion. There is very little ‘plot’ in what is quite a long film (102 mins) for this kind of subject. Little plot but tons of observation and insight. Any audience will see themselves in this film – remembering how it felt, how families and friends reacted and what pleased them most at 13. The parents are skilfully represented and not lampooned. Instead they are gently satirised but also allowed to be human. The three girls were selected after a long casting exercise in which Moodysson had to make choices based on the three who worked together best. He chose well. In the press notes he puts a special emphasis on the costumes they wear and their overall look which, including the hair, is wonderful. The detail I like is that Klara wears a Palestinian keffiyeh which contradicts the fashion code but perfectly fits the mixture of rebellion, cool and joyful rejection of authority. Lukas and Coco appear to work well together and I’m not sure how much of each partner appears in the film. The graphic novel connection is interesting and I was sometimes reminded of Persepolis in terms of the ‘tone’ of the film. (Lukas Moodysson talks about ‘tone’ quite a lot in the notes – “I wanted to replicate the tone of the book . . . I’m not really so thorough with the storyline, I’m more interested in the tone, the mood, the details.”) I wonder if some enterprising publisher will bring out Coco Moodysson’s 2008 novel Aldrig godnatt (Never goodnight) in the UK/US? (Read an interview with Coco Moodysson at Female First.)
The music in the film is well chosen and fits the narrative. I know how important music has been to Swedish teens from the various books and films I’ve come across but I didn’t know anything about the punk scene. The press notes assure us that the music in the film is genuine, apart from, presumably, the great lyrics that the girls write – there one song is ‘Anti-Sport’ directed at their fascist PE teacher. (There is one social type which never seems to disappear, but occasionally the PE teacher can be sympathetic, as in Let the Right One In.) The look of the film is, I think, carefully managed to resemble a 1980s Swedish film. I did wonder if it was shot on film.
We Are the Best! deserves to be loved by audiences everywhere. It’s the perfect night out. Here’s the trailer:
The obvious question about Easy Money is why did it take so long to get to the UK? Another crime fiction adaptation – from a bestselling novel by Jans Lepidus (2006) – which was a box office smash in Sweden in 2010 and it has already had a sequel with a third film due for release in October this year. Since ‘Nordic Noir’ arguably reached the peak of its popularity in the UK in 2011-12, why wasn’t this film released with the same kind of marketing drive that propelled the Stieg Larsson films and Headhunters into the UK Top 10? Partly, perhaps, because there wasn’t an English translation of the source novel published in the UK until early this year. But I suspect that the botched release has been more a product of a Hollywood battle over remake rights. Its eventual release via Lionsgate is announced as ‘Martin Scorsese Presents’. I confess that I didn’t notice this on my cinema visit and the film clearly missed its Nordic Noir audience as the takings were dire in the first two weeks. But don’t let that put you off. Easy Money is an excellent thriller and well worth catching in CinemaScope on a big screen.
In some ways this is a typical Nordic crime film, though the female lead character is rather underutilised. (She may appear more in the next film – in this one it is important that she doesn’t really know what is happening.) It’s really a hard boys’ thriller with three central male characters. I was confused when trailers and early reviews kept mentioning The Killing. It was only after the screening that I realised that the main character ‘JW’ (Johan) was played by Joel Kinnaman, who was also the lead in the American version of the Danish series. In Easy Money, JW is a young man with a double life – by day an ‘A’ student at the Stockholm School of Economics and by night a taxi driver. My early recognition was of Matias Varela, one of the team of police officers in the Arne Dahl TV films shown recently in the UK. Varela plays Jorge, a Latin American migrant who we see first making a prison break. The third lead is Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) a Serbian hit man working for a ‘Yugoslav’ gang.
The key narrative idea is that the lure of ‘easy money’ is too strong for each of the three characters above. The stories are those of these three characters, from their perspectives. The police only appear at the end of the film. The Nordic Noir elements are the almost complete focus on migrant communities in Stockholm and Göteborg and the way in which each of the three central characters is driven by/constrained by a ‘social’ issue of some kind.Jorge has a pregnant sister who he doesn’t want to be drawn into gangland struggles – and a cousin who is a key contact in Germany. Mrado, separated from his partner, finds himself presented with sole custody of his small daughter, making his lifestyle quite complicated. Johan is effectively ‘living a lie’ and we can’t be sure exactly what his background is, but he is clearly conning his rich friends.
The key social/cultural/economic issue is however the international financial crisis of 2008 (i.e. after the novel was written) since it is Johann’s grasp of the situation and his ideas about how to exploit it which appeals to Abdulkarim, the gang boss who runs the taxi company. (It also helps Johann in his dealings with his wealthy friends.) I won’t spoil the plot but it involves the Arabs/Hispanics, supported by the Albanians trying to outwit the ‘Yugoslavs’ – with various agents switching sides. Director Daniel Espinosa, himself from a Chilean migrant background says that he knew these cultures in the Stockholm suburbs/housing estates and that’s why he fought to get the job. Before Easy Money hit the UK, Espinosa had already had his first Hollywood film with Denzel Washington, Safe House, released internationally.
The ending of the film ha resolution, but also leaves open the possibilities for the next episode. I will certainly try to watch Easy Money 2. The trailer below from Lionsgate is very ‘Hollywood’. It makes no reference to Scandinavian crime fiction and its popularity, which I think is a mistake – the film is mostly in Swedish. If you are a Nordic Noir fan, this is probably closest to the Arne Dahl series, though from the criminals’ perspective.
False Trail saved the Christmas holiday for me in terms of a new film to go and see. I’m glad I saw it and I’m grateful to the National Media Museum for booking it – but disappointed that Arrow, the small distributor that seems to be acquiring most of the Nordic films and TV series reaching the UK, didn’t give it more of a push. As the Swedish title indicates, this is a sequel to a film released in 1996, which I don’t think reached the UK. The market has, of course, changed since 1996 for Swedish crime fiction films. There is a brief flashback in this film to what I presume were the events of the first, but there doesn’t seem to be any problem in making sense of this film as a standalone.
This is another film that begins with a hunt. Following the Thomas Vinterberg film, UK audiences have been reminded that we seem to be amongst the European countries with the lowest rates of gun ownership. In Swedish Lappland, where False Trail is set, virtually everyone in the film owns at least one hunting rifle. A young woman has gone missing and clues have been found during the time that a hunt is taking place. The hunt then turns into a search operation and the local police arrest a likely and seemingly obvious suspect. However, it is such a small close-knit community that individual police officers have too much history of confrontations with the suspect and the local chief decides to ask Stockholm for help. The officer who arrives from the South, actually comes from Lappland, but he has hardly been back since the events of the earlier (i.e. in 1996). He has a family connection to the local police but no knowledge of the suspect so he is deemed potentially objective.
The man from the South is played by Rolf Lassgård, who has already played Martin Beck, Kurt Wallander and Sebastian Bergman. He’s a great actor but it would be nice to see a new actor occasionally. Predictably, he is short-tempered and stubborn but a good investigator. The film is essentially a procedural, but there are strong thriller elements and the finale plays out like a family melodrama in a perfect setting – a fast-flowing river with large boulders creating turbulence. The plot and the setting are reminiscent of Insomnia (Norway 1997) (the film remade by Christopher Nolan) but the long summer evenings so far North aren’t really mentioned by the characters. It’s also the case that the film does seem like a TV film with Lassgård as Wallander. But this is only in terms of his casting and the crime fiction elements. The film looks magnificent in CinemaScope and deserves to be seen in the cinema and not on DVD where Arrow presumably expects to find the biggest audiences. It’s over two hours but I found the time whizzed by and the thriller elements worked pretty well. I won’t spoil the plot but as I’ve indicated already this is more a familiar crime melodrama rather than that critique of social policies and the breakdown of society we are familiar with from Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.
With over half a million admissions in Sweden, director Kjell Sundvall‘s film was a popular local hit. Arrow have provided a UK Facebook page for the film which lists cinemas where the film is playing later in January in the UK. I’d certainly recommend a visit – but not as some reviewers suggest as a follow-on from The Killing. This has more outdoor action and the climax is more like a classic 1950s Western. In other words it’s the kind of genre film that popular cinema needs more of. I bet it’s more fun than The Hobbit!
This two-part narrative offers an unusual TV format – two 90 mins crime stories which together make a single 180 minute narrative about the principal investigator. (The German TV channel ZDF lists them as 2 x 100 mins, so there may have been cuts.) I’ve not come across this before as far as I remember. Usually a ‘mini-series’ or ‘special’ will be a single crime story spread over two or three episodes. What seems to have happened here is that the Nordic Noir interest in the personal life of the central investigator has been pushed to the limit and has now become the main narrative driver.
The central character is a psychologist/psychological profiler named Sebastian Bergman (the joke about the famous Swedish film director comes in part 2). He’s played by Rolf Lassgärd – one of Sweden’s best-known actors. Lassgärd is excellent but he carries a lot of baggage having played Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander – in the first Swedish incarnation of the character – and appeared in a series based on the Martin Beck novels, the original Scandinavian police procedural success from the 1970s. Mankell himself married Ingmar Bergman’s daughter a few years ago. The producers of this series worked on the original Wallander and Part 1 of this series went out on Christmas Day 2010 in Sweden – creating a TV event which must have been a bit like the death of Inspector Morse on UK TV in terms of its resonances.
Sebastian is in virtually every way an unsympathetic character. We are introduced to him via a scene in some ways reminiscent of one of his Wallander roles (the opening to The Man Who Smiled, 2003) – giving a lecture to police officers, during which he reveals himself as an egoist who makes offensive remarks to two of the women in the audience. Simply put he is a serial shagger and that is an important element in the narrative. Brilliant though he may be as a profiler, Sebastian is a vulnerable man in terms of controlling his libido and he has been damaged by the loss of his wife and small daughter in the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean – believing he could have saved his daughter.
The original Swedish title of the series translates as ‘The Condemned’ or ‘The Doomed’. Does this refer to Sebastian? In Part 1 the ‘retired’ Bergman helps to solve a shooting in his own home town where he has gone to visit his old house after his mother’s recent death. He clearly knows the two senior police officers conducting the investigation who accept his help, but he immediately antagonises Vanja, the bright young woman who does the main leg-work for the murder squad. The young blonde policewoman at various times wears her hair tied up Lassgärd in a short ponytail – at which point she looks remarkably like the late Joanna Sällström who played Kurt Wallander’s daughter, Linda in the Krister Henriksson version of the Mankell stories. In Part 2 Bergman again forces himself upon the reluctant investigation team in order to solve the serial killing of three women which seems to be the work of a ‘copycat’ killer. Bergman himself ‘solved’ the original crime and it soon becomes apparent that the killer has a personal interest in Bergman.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure of anyone who wants to watch the series – on the BBCiPlayer in the UK – but it will be fairly obvious that the main focus is on the central dynamic of many Nordic Noir narratives, i.e. the relationship between the older, damaged/vulnerable male investigator and the bright, confident young woman.
I enjoyed watching both parts, but on reflection they seem very different. Part 1 seems to be in the tradition of the small-town procedural. I like the use of the school gym as the temporary murder squad HQ and the general sense of claustrophobia in the small community. Part 1 is directed by Daniel Espinosa who made the big film hit, Easy Money (Snabba Cash) immediately before this TV episode. The shaky camerawork is irritating I know, but he does achieve an edginess which works well with the claustrophobia and the short flashbacks to possible crime scenarios fit well into the editing pattern. By contrast, Part 2 is directed by one of the two co-writers, Michael Hjorth. This seemed much blander and closer to TV crime series conventions. The crime story has no links to Part 1 at all and as a serial killer story it’s much more North American (and also closer to the recent Those Who Kill, the Danish series on ITV3). All the Swedish (and Danish) series seem to me to be much weaker when they go for the action genre finale. Even in The Killing 2 and The Bridge, I found the final confrontation to be much less compelling than what went before. The characters are what make these series unmissable – we can get chases, fights and stand-offs at any time.
Bergman, as portrayed by Lassgärd, is a fascinating character. You want to punch him in the mouth, but you know that he is going to come up with something (after several mistakes). I’ve seen several comments that make him out to be very similar to the Robbie Coltrane character in Cracker. I didn’t watch enough of that series to be able to make that judgement but there always seems to be a sense of fun about Coltrane – Lassgärd is a much darker presence. I could take more of him in episodes that were more like Part 1 here. In the meantime, it’s back to the French series Spiral which I haven’t yet got into. We expect the Scandinavians back in a couple of months – anyone know when exactly?
Trying – and probably failing – not to feel smug, I offer you this article in today’s Guardian by number cruncher Charles Gant. A week before the release of Headhunters, confidently expected to be a worldwide hit as a Norwegian film, Gant reports that MGM has conceded that David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will make a loss in cinemas (despite grossing over $230 million). Gant questions why Hollywood makes a seemingly pointless remake – our sentiments entirely. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg is reported as being interested in taking the lead role in Summit’s remake of Headhunters.
Having just read Headhunters – and enjoying it very much, I’m very much looking forward to the film and I’ll be introducing it on April 14 at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of a talk on Nordic Crime Fiction. Please come along.
Nordic crime fiction is one of the major trends in contemporary film and television with successful Nordic titles often prompting swift American remakes. If you want to go back to the source of many of the celebrated elements of the Swedish police procedural, the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö offer a good place to start. This couple, good Marxist socialists both, wrote ten immensely popular police procedurals in the 1960s and 1970s featuring a Stockholm detective and his team. The stories all manage to critique what the authors saw as the flaws in Swedish social democracy. It is this political imperative which has survived in the work of Henning Mankell and others. All the books were made into films or TV series in Sweden and overseas. The best of the films is often said to be this 1976 adaptation by the celebrated Swedish director Bo Widerberg. Widerberg was the young turk of the Swedish ‘New Wave’ in the early 1960s and one of the more radical directors who was critical of Ingmar Bergman’s status within Swedish film culture.
The novel’s title is The Abominable Man – a reference to a police lieutenant who is lying in a hospital bed when he is attacked and brutally murdered, almost filleted with a bayonet. Martin Beck and his colleagues begin an investigation but just as they solve the mystery, the murderer takes to the rooftops with a selection of powerful snipers’ rifles and the police authorities have to devise a safe way of disarming him.
The key feature of the film is its realism. Widerberg shoots on location and the action sequences in the film have a strong documentary feel which is also evident during the long police procedural sequences. The casting of a leading Swedish comedian of the period Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck and the sheer ‘ordinariness’ of the rest of the team adds to this ‘realism effect’. (Lindstedt was the son of a Social-Democratic Party politician and started his career in a socialist youth theatre group according to Wikipedia.) The film is generally very well thought of – bearing comparison with the best Hollywood crime films of the 1970s (comparisons are made with The French Connection). The critique here is not of police corruption in the Hollywood sense (i.e. drugs, extortion etc.), but something more akin to the systematic failure of police teams to do their job properly – and then to cover up the evidence with collective amnesia and a refusal to take complaints seriously. This approach shifts the focus from a single rogue to the system itself.
Overall I was very impressed with this film (presented on a Swedish Region 2 DVD with English subs bought online from Play.com). The quality of the transfer to DVD is very good. I was a Widerberg fan in the late 1960s and early 1970s but I don’t remember this getting a UK release. I did feel that one or two of the decisions during the sniper incident seemed a bit odd, but then I reflected on how Hollywood would have played it and concluded that the bungling of the Swedish approach is much more like real life and the mistakes we all make. It might be interesting to compare this with some of the other Martin Beck adaptations. After watching this, it doesn’t seem so surprising that Walter Matthau should have played Beck in the US adaptation of another Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel The Laughing Policeman (novel 1968, film 1973). The setting is changed to San Francisco and the character names are changed but the cast looks strong Louis Gossett Jr, Bruce Dern and Joanna Cassidy in a small role. Anybody seen it?