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.
I thought I’d spotted most of the major Nordic crime writers but there always seem to be more. Arne Dahl is the ‘crime fiction pseudonym’ of Swedish writer Jan Arnald. It looks like a kind of anagram but it makes me think of Arlene Dahl (a B picture contract star at MGM in the 1940s/50s). Arne Dahl has written around ten crime novels about a team of elite police officers known as the ‘A Group’. The first of these has been translated into English as The Blinded Man and was published by Vintage in 2012. The first five novels were each adapted for television as 3 hour films, presumably shown in two parts. That’s how BBC4 have decided to show them in the UK in their favoured Nordic Noir slot on a Saturday night. Part 1 of The Blinded Man was screened under its Swedish title Misterioso – the title of a Thelonious Monk track featured in the film.
I suspect that many of the Killing/Bridge fans won’t like this as it is certainly not a procedural/melodrama with a careful script. I worried that it might be a US type SWAT squad show but it looks more like Stieg Larsson territory with as much violence but possibly a little more humour. I was pleasantly surprised. In this opener we have a version of the Danish three-part structure. Someone is assassinating bankers (make your own wish here) while a bunch of Estonian gangsters is concerned about their operations in Sweden and the Stockholm police decide to put together an elite squad of misfits from all over Sweden to find the banker-killer. We even got the classic Dirty Dozen/Dirty Harry narrative device of a police officer who has done something dumb in catching a miscreant and is then whisked away to join the A Group – when he should be being disciplined. The rest of the A Group includes a short working class IT expert and a huge body builder type (who IMDB reports is played by a real one-time bodybuilder). The short guy is played by Matias Varela who currently has the highest profile with his work on the Easy Money franchise in Sweden. This large and short duo go out on a job and a suspect refers to them as Laurel and Hardy. A couple of the other funny scenes are quite deadpan and I was reminded of the work of Roy Andersson. This reference was strengthened by the use of music, jazz being important – but the camera and the fast editing were not at all like Andersson.
I found that 90 minutes whizzed by and the show seemed quite fresh. Only one of the six in the A Group hasn’t been properly introduced to us yet, but already they seem like an interesting crew. I’m looking forward to next week’s second part.
The third serial featuring police inspector Sarah Lund returns to the mix of elements of the first and for me represents a distinct improvement on The Killing II. Again it’s presented as 10 x 58 minutes episodes rather than the 20 episodes of the first outing. In the UK these have been transmitted as double episodes over five Saturday nights. I’ve found this too intense and we’ve watched the second weekly episode on the following Sunday evening – hooray for BBC iPlayer.
In retrospect, I think we can now see that The Killing II lost something by moving too far away from ‘family melodrama’. Its focus on the Danish armed forces and their role in Afghanistan didn’t allow the various narrative strands to cross-fertilise in quite the same way as in the first and third serials (even though there were both family issues and political intrigues). The three serials have all had the same mix of murder, families and politics but the balance of ingredients has shifted. In The Killing III there are as many as five ‘families’ or family situations. We learn something about parents and children in terms of ‘victim’, ‘perpetrator’, politician and both the main police officers. This allows the narrative to place Sarah Lund in almost impossible situations in which we are invited to consider her own relationship with her son as well as what her actions might mean in respect of the other families. I can’t think of any other film narrative with quite such a complex meshing of relationships.
[NO SPOILERS here if you haven't watched the serial yet.] The serial this time links very big business (a major shipping company with a large presence in the Danish economy) with a general election and a focus on the main party leaders. The central narrative concerns the abduction of the young daughter of a shipping magnate (played by Anders W. Berthelsen – who has starred in several Danish films released in the UK). Sarah Lund is once more brought back from a less demanding post to head the investigation of a series of murders that will turn out to be linked to the abduction. Sarah’s familiar problems with her mother and her son are still in evidence. This might explain why she treats her new sidekick Juncker, a very eager and determined young man, in an offhand way. She also finds herself having to deal with an old flame who she hasn’t seen since her days at police college. Mathias Borch (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) works for Special Branch (‘PET’ in Denmark) and his presence is explained by the importance of the shipping company Zeeland to the Danish government. The Prime Minister who is soon to face a General Election is keen to keep Zeeland in Denmark as a major employer (the company is a conglomerate with many interests). Later we will discover that the PM’s family is also involved in some way with the central story.
The Killing has consistently deployed the main genre elements of the current cycle of Nordic noir. The female investigator is faced by male suspects and has to deal with the men who are her professional partners and bosses and also the majority of the political figures. In The Killing III there is a female political leader and, in an important role, a female political advisor. The writer Søren Sveistrup has been careful to make two of the other female leads less than perfect characters – but perhaps this means that their characters aren’t properly developed? Some of the themes of the third serial are very familiar from other Nordic noirs. The death which is eventually revealed as the inciting incident for the whole narrative concerns a young woman in care. The global perspective is limited in this case, but the narrative does manage to raise questions about Denmark’s open borders with Sweden and Germany and, through the shipping company, its links with issues globally. The first two serials involved journeys to Sweden. The climax of the third serial takes place in Norway. The politics of the third serial is ‘national’ and focuses on the Prime Minister. In some ways it pushes The Killing closer to Borgen with a focus on the pressure of party politics – and the leader’s family. Some blog comments have suggested that these machinations are less interesting than the local (mayoral) elections in The Killing I. I tend to agree with this and I think that the Special Branch involvement means that this third serial faces the problem of balancing the frustrations of the spy thriller type narrative – i.e. the truth can’t be allowed to ‘come out’ because of national security/paranoia of the rulers – and the requirements of the Nordic noir to critique social conditions and cultural changes in a liberal democracy. As a result, there seems to be an inevitability about the weight of expectation placed on the behaviour of Sarah Lund – as if her state of mind is indicative of the condition of Denmark.
The Killing turns out to be all about the state of Danish ‘public service’ and personal responsibilities expressed through the troubled social and working life of Sarah Lund. You do wonder if they might have called it Lund and made the comparison with Wallander more explicit. (In Germany the serial is titled Kommissarin Lund: Das Verbrechen or Inspector Lund: The Crime.) Lund is younger than Wallander, in her late thirties when the serials began in 2007, but she seems just as dysfunctional and as worn down by the job. Like Wallander with his daughter, Lund is a single parent making a less than good job of bringing up her son. Like Wallander too she is dogged in her pursuit of criminals and like him she makes mistakes, sometimes serious ones. Inevitably, the investigations are extended because of this – and the serial takes full advantage of the extra time to explore the frustrations of police procedures. But whereas Wallander operates in a generally peaceful small town in Southern Sweden, Lund operates from a base in Denmark’s capital city and is always under pressure from politicians and national police/security bosses. Again, where Wallander blusters, drinks too much and eats badly, Lund seemingly internalises everything. She doesn’t drink, smoke or listen to opera. Everything is bottled up, threatening to emerge in a violent eruption of some kind. In Killing III there is a moment of sudden ‘warm’ emotional release but it is over quickly. Inevitably, this repression builds up the narrative pressure on the last episode of the serial that ends with a climactic scene which for me works quite well – unlike the disappointing climax to Killing II.
Lund works well as a character. Although unknown in the UK before The Killing, Sofie Gråbøl has a strong star persona in Denmark which includes film, TV and stage work. She has just completed a month’s revival of her lead role in a stage adaptation of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander at the Danish National Theatre in Copenhagen. As Lund she offers a powerful performance as a senior female police officer displaying total commitment, single-mindedness and stoicism in the face of failure. She has the occasional flash of insight and she is able to recognise the importance of tiny clues but she isn’t a ‘superwoman’ by any means. As a female hero she doesn’t have to be glamorous – though even in her jumpers and jeans she is an attractive figure and on the odd occasions when her hair is down and she is more relaxed she becomes positively beautiful.
The Killing has been remarkably well covered in the UK press. The audience for the BBC4 screenings is around 1 million – significantly larger than the cinema audience for most subtitled films. This is also the audience most likely to read the ‘quality press’. The Guardian ran a Killing blog with around 2,000 comments for each of the five weeks of broadcasts. It’s interesting to read the article by Patrick Kingsley, a young British journalist who has cashed in on the popularity of Danish TV drama with a book on Danish culture for Brits. The ‘reader’s comments’ on his short article are fascinating. They reveal very different views on Denmark’s democracy, its liberalism, equality and cultural homogeneity – and the allegations of racism and xenophobia.
Even though the serial is taken to be a ‘Danish’ production by the Danish psb (public service broadcaster) DR, it is in reality a co-production with ZDF, the German psb and it is also supported by Swedish and Norwegian broadcasters. According to Wikipedia, the serial (or at least one of the three serials) has been bought be 120 countries. Unlike most Nordic films that are usually confined to their own domestic cinema market, Nordic TV genre series are widely seen across the Nordic region and now, thanks to the ZDF sales team across the world. (For a detailed analysis of Nordic Films and TV see this report – available to download as a pdf.) This is truly global television on a scale to match Hollywood. Borgen 2 starts in the UK on January 5th – I can’t wait!
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?