Tagged: crime fiction

Walter Presents: Code 37, Sex Crimes (Belgium 2009)

The vice squad team in Ghent: (from left) Kevin (Gilles De Schrijver), Charles (Marc Lauwrys), Hannah (Veerle Baetens) and Bob (Michael Pas)

‘Walter Presents’ is the ‘authored brand’ of foreign language TV dramas offered by UK broadcaster Channel 4 via selected slots on its secondary channel More4 and on SVOD via its All4 streaming service. ‘Walter’ is Walter Iuzzolino, the Italian TV producer who finds the programming for Channel 4. The SVOD service is free to access in the UK, though it requires registration. I’m accessing it via Apple TV. Code 37 (the original title) is unusual in being an archive series/serial which ran in Belgium for three seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012 – 39 episodes (of approx. 47 mins) in all. There was a standalone feature film in 2011, also titled Code 37. I’ve watched the first half of Season 1 and it’s been an interesting experience.

The narrative is set in the Flemish city region of Ghent (Gent) in East Flanders. The dialogue is mainly in Flemish with English subs and the occasional phrase in English. Episode 1 begins with the new boss of the city’s vice squad, Hannah Maes (Veerle Baetens) arriving on her first day at a murder scene in a hotel. She meets her new team and swiftly claims the case (of a guest murdered in her room) ahead of the homicide squad because, she argues, the woman in her 30s was clearly strangled during a ‘choke sex’ act. I’m not sure that the narrative establishes how this could be proven – i.e. whether this was a sex ‘game’ gone wrong or a deliberate act of murder. The episodes appear to be organised as one case per episode, so the team have barely 40 minutes to find the person responsible. In addition this first episode shows Hannah settling in to her new apartment after returning from working with American crime teams in Chicago. There is also a brief flashback to something that happened several years earlier in her parent’s home. This was clearly traumatic and marks Hannah as a young woman who is driven by her early experience of violent crime. Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is a possible influence on the script and I note that Veerle Baetens once starred in a theatrical musical production of Salander’s ‘heroine’ model, ‘Pippa Longstocking’.

Code 37 is in many ways a conventional crime series. Hannah relaxes by playing vinyl records (her mother’s collection’) of classic Motown. One element that is different is Hannah’s ‘team’ which comprises three typical misfits. Charles is an asthmatic chain smoker close to retirement and Kevin is a young man with blonde curls which along with his wide grin make him appear like a naughty choirboy. He is the ‘computer wiz’. Finally there is Bob, the macho slob who cracks bad jokes and cranks out the sexist remarks about Hannah – out of her hearing.

This unlikely team is supposed to investigate ‘sex crimes’ and it does mean a slightly different approach to the standard police procedural. I imagine that a ‘vice squad’, like a ‘drugs squad’ will see a different balance in their work between the private and the personal. They will spend time in an alternative world which they need to understand. They may have to go undercover and they may have to make moral decisions about behaviour that they might not otherwise meet. The broadcaster may feel that with an SVOD offer it is possible to represent sexual acts more graphically than on terrestrial channels. This series has been sold to North American channels and I’ve seen one commentator suggesting that this European show might ramp up the sex but moderate the violence compared to US series. I’m not sure that is necessarily something I’ve noticed so far. The show comes complete with warnings about sex and violence but the registration process would be unlikely keep out the average savvy 11 year-old.

The weakness of the format is the short amount of time in which to set up a case for the team to investigate and apprehend the culprit(s) as well as exploring Hannah’s back story. But do the writers and director manage to get round the problem? I admit that after a couple of episodes I couldn’t really understand why the series seems to be so highly rated on IMDb. But there was something there that kept me watching (the box set binge attraction?). I’m glad I did because after eight episodes I’m enjoying the show a lot. The three team members who I thought were comic characters are being gradually fleshed out. Bob has got his comeuppance and Charles and Kevin prove to be competent and interesting characters with back stories that are slowly being revealed.

Veerle Baetens is the star attraction as Hannah and a strong addition to the growing group of female leads in TV crime fictions.

But the show stands or falls on Veerle Baeten’s Hannah and she is very good indeed. The character is similar in some ways to both Lisbeth Salander and Saga Noren but she isn’t as extreme as either of them. She has two other narratives to negotiate. The first is the trauma of a ‘home invasion’ at her parents’ house. Hannah is now trying to re-open the cold case and investigate it on her own. She is also trying to decide what to do about a possible relationship with her neighbour who lives on a barge behind her apartment. The cold case is introduced by the same flashback sequences each time Hannah visits her father. I do find this irritating but gradually more is being revealed so I’ll live with it. But the biggest surprise is the variety of cases the squad is required to investigate and the ways in which Hannah not only organises the work efficiently but also how she deals sympathetically and patiently with a wide range of victims and perpetrators. The code by which Hannah operates is spelled out in the first episode – if a sexual act between two people is consensual by both parties that’s OK. But if someone is forced it becomes a crime to be investigated. Presumably this will eventually be tested in an episode that involves BDSM? It is tested out in a different way in Episode 2 in which the team discover that a young woman is an exhibitionist who likes to strip and dance provocatively for a man in an apartment some distance from her high rise block. She sends him texts when she is about to start and he uses a telescope to watch her. This is clearly consensual but voyeuristic behaviour like this is, in general terms a crime, as Hannah reveals to the man whose wife and children are unaware of what he is doing. Because the young woman is involved in another incident which involves violence and is connected to her exhibitionism, the voyeur must be investigated. This risks his exposure and the possible break-up of his marriage and/or the loss of his job as a schoolteacher. This strikes me as an interesting moral dilemma for Hannah and her team – and one repeated in different ways throughout the series.

I’m assuming Belgian law is not dissimilar to that in France and other parts of Europe (i.e. it differs in some respect from English Common Law) but still the actions of the vice squad in arresting suspects and interrogating them seems to be free of some of the restrictions which have become common in UK crime fiction narratives. Again the short time available may mean that everything is streamlined for the narrative. The series has a team of writers and directors, the most used being the writer Hola Guapa (13 episodes) and the director Jakob Verbruggen (19 episodes). Verbruggen went on to direct both US and UK series including The Fall in the UK in 2013. Jan Vancaillie photographed the whole of series 1. I thought at first that the format would limit the range of locations but we do eventually get to see a bit more of the Ghent city region which has roughly the same population as Bradford (around half a million) but not the same range of landscapes I suspect. Ghent also seems much less of a multiracial city compared to both UK cities and to Brussels and Liège (with which I’m more familiar). The camerawork does attempt hand-held sequences and also both long shots and big close-ups. The latter often signal the flashbacks for Hannah’s trauma.

I will definitely complete at least Series 1 and if you are a crime fiction fan I would certainly recommend the series. If you stick with it past the first two or three episodes I think you will enjoy it as much as me. Don’t be put off by the sleazy connotations of ‘sex crimes’, the range of stories and the ‘human interest’ angles are all there.

The Bay (UK 2019)

The Bay Lisa Armstrong

Morven Christie is DS Lisa Armstrong, Family Liaison Officer

It was a strange day on Wednesday this week. We watched the last episode of The Bay on ITV only a few hours after returning from a day out in Morecambe where the ITV series was set and the final episode ended on the promenade and Stone Jetty where we had lunch. The crime serial (6×52 mins episodes) proved to be a winner for me overall, although I felt it lost its way a little around episode 3 and there were still a few loose ends flapping about at the end.

When the serial opened on UK screens it received some positive critical reviews for the first episode but then something of a backlash on social media. A common complaint was that it was just another inferior version of Broadchurch, one of the biggest crime fiction hits of recent years. It’s not difficult to see why this response might be forthcoming. Both serials feature missing children in a seaside setting with an emotionally involved police investigator. But there are major differences too. Broadchurch featured three major stars of British film and TV (Jodie Whittaker, Olivia Colman and David Tennant) as well as other well-known supporting players and in the second serial, several more notable figures. It was set in a fictitious town on a relatively unknown but beautiful part of the South Coast with London seemingly a long way away. If The Bay was more interesting for me, it was probably because of its setting.

The Bay refers to Morecambe Bay, a large geographical feature and one of the largest natural bays in Europe. The seaside resort of Morecambe is the largest settlement on the bay. As a resort, Morecambe reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century. It attracted large numbers of holidaymakers who used the direct rail route from Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire (and which we used on our trip –  in far less comfort than travellers sixty years ago!). In its decline Morecambe has suffered like many other seaside resorts in Northern England and one of the social problems associated with that decline is an important element in this crime fiction drama.

The Bay Abbie

Imogen King as Lisa’s daughter Abbie- a bit like her mum in attitude?

The serial begins with the disappearance of 15 year-old twins Holly and Dylan. The officer who is assigned to Family Liaison duty is DS Lisa Armstrong who is not best pleased to be taken off a drugs investigation and asked to mentor DC ‘Med’ Kharim. She has a double burden to bear. In Episode 1 she does something that will compromise her position later on in the investigation and she is also a single parent for her own teenagers Abbie and Rob who go to the same school as Holly and Dylan. I’m not going to describe all the plot elements because the serial will be available on the ITV Hub and has been sold to several other TV broadcasters around the world.But I would like to comment on the production more generally.

Unlike Broadchurch, The Bay doesn’t have any major stars in the cast. That doesn’t mean that the cast is in any way inexperienced, but simply that the lead players are not so well-known that an entire episode is spent wondering what will happen to them based on their status. I don’t watch a lot of TV so perhaps some of the cast are more familiar to some viewers but I don’t think there are the same expectations of major acting tussles like Colman vs. Tennant etc. The star of The Bay is Morven Christie as Lisa Armstrong, who does indeed have a long list of TV credits and some interesting film roles. I must have seen her in Lilting (UK 2013). In The Bay she is excellent, managing, as a Scot, to produce an acceptable North of England accent. The cast overall are very good, drawn from across the North and as far afield as the North of Ireland (linked by ferry to Morecambe/Heysham). The Bay was written by Daragh Carville, the writer and playwright from Armagh who has written radio plays and films and the six episodes were directed by Lee Haven Jones and Robert Quinn, both of whom have experience of other UK crime fiction series.

The Bay main cast

Media coverage is not as prominent as in Broadchurch, but in this brief statement to the media the parents of the two missing teenagers (see inset) are presented with Lisa, Med and their boss DI Ryan behind.

One of the most important questions for me is how well do the creators of this serial make use of the locations offered by Morecambe and its environs? Morecambe’s claim to fame in film and television rests on three or four high profile narratives and associated stars. In 1960 it was the setting for Tony Richardson’s film The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier and in 1975 Stephen Frears’ TV film written by Alan Bennett, Sunset Across the Bay. Bennett, the Leeds boy knew Morecambe from his childhood. Thora Hird, often Alan Bennett’s go to actor is one of Morecambe’s best known celebrity figures alongside Eric Bartholomew, a.k.a Eric Morecambe, now a statue on the Promenade and immortalised in a biopic TV film by another Morecambe fan, Victoria Wood. Finally Morecambe Bay became the site of the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers in 2004 represented in Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts (UK 2006) and Isaac Julien’s installation Ten Thousand Waves (UK-China 2010). The cockle-pickers died just north of Morecambe in the bay close to Hest Bank.

Thanks to my local contact, I’m fairly sure that all the scenes in the serial were shot in the Morecambe area except for one in the closed outdoor swimming pool across the bay in Grange-over-Sands and another in a marina or fishing dock (my guess is Whitehaven or Glasson?). My impression is that the production tends to focus on the seafront and the few streets behind the promenade. There isn’t as much made of the beach and the bay as I thought might be the case and nothing of the hinterland of suburban housing which stretches inland and eventually merges with Lancaster.

The serial narrative is very complex. In terms of narrative structure it presents two families, both, in different ways, with mothers struggling through the teenage years of their children, both aided (or not) by their own mothers. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll say simply that the eventual family melodrama that becomes the dominant mode of the serial is melded with a crime fiction narrative mainly by the presence of drug dealing in the town and the access to Morecambe by sea is important. Morecambe as far as I am aware doesn’t have a fishing industry or a dock as such although it is a popular spot for amateur sea anglers. The only commercial fishery is across the bay at Flookburgh so for The Bay, a Morecambe-based fishing boat in the Irish Sea is an invention. The story does make sense though as an example of the ‘County Lines’ drugs operations whereby Manchester drugs gangs can bring drugs into a town like Morecambe and find/coerce locals into dealing.

As I’ve indicated there are some loose ends in the narrative and that might mean a sequel is a possibility. (It could also mean that I couldn’t make sense of the narrative in a single viewing or that there are mistakes in the script.) I think I would be up for another go. One last comment might be about the casting. The police force in this film seems diverse to a greater extent than might be expected in North Lancashire. I’m all in favour of diversity of gender and race in both the police and in TV drama but I wonder if it is also an indicator of how both the police and the presence of ‘organised’ crime represent urban Manchester reaching out to the ‘periphery’ of the North Lancashire coast? Morecambe is arguably a candidate for ‘left behind’ status in the current Brexit mess that has paralysed UK political action.

 

Black Tide (Fleuve noir, France 2018)

Commander Visconti (Vincent Cassel) is a police detective with some dubious methods . . .

This odd film is one of the MUBI selections from the My French Film Festival. It’s odd because on the surface it appears to be a typical polar/crime thriller but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like a genre film. It may be because it is an adaptation of an Israeli novel by Dror Mishani and the adaptation is directed by Erick Zonca as only the third film he has completed since his international arthouse hit The Dreamlife of Angels (La vie rêvée des anges, 1998). The lead player of that film, Élodie Bouchez, is the fourth lead in this new film – in a secondary role behind three very established French stars.

The most immediately recognisable of the three stars is Sandrine Kiberlain as Solange, a depressed mother in her late 40s with a young teenage daughter who has learning difficulties. Her older child, Dany is a high school student who has gone missing and her husband, a merchant seaman, is away on a trip. When the boy’s disappearance is reported to the police it becomes a case for Commander Visconti played against type by an almost unrecognisable Vincent Cassel and seemingly lurking around every corner is a neighbour and Dany’s sometime tutor Yann Belaille played by Roman Duris – also looking very different. What follows is a drama featuring these three powerful actors.

. . . this includes his treatment of a parent (Solange – Sandrine Kiberlain) whose son goes missing

The settings of the film are also unusual. Visconti is based in a police station in the city but the boy’s family live in an apartment block by a wood, presumably in an outer suburb and at times this felt like the setting for a Nordic Noir. If your recent experience of French policing on TV is the wonderful serial Engrenages (Spiral) you may also be a little baffled by the police operations this film. How does Visconti keep his job? This narrative is only marginally interested in police procedures. Visconti is an alcoholic living alone and battling with his son who appears to be operating a semi-pro drugs business from his high school. The Commander is dishevelled with greasy unruly hair and a thick beard. His appearance and demeanour suggest that he is permanently suffering from hangovers and his interrogation of witnesses in their homes often includes a request for whisky. Part way through the narrative he is taken off the case and replaced by a colleague with a more conventional approach. But this doesn’t appear to prevent Visconti carrying on his investigation.

. . . and the school teacher (Yann Belaille – Romain Duris) who admittedly does behave suspiciously

Visconti becomes interested, perhaps too interested, in the creepy neighbour/teacher. Romain Duris is similarly disguised by a thick bushy beard (though this one is carefully groomed) and large spectacles. What does he know? What is he up to now? Most of the time this narrative is a mystery. Dany can’t be found. Is he still alive? In one sense Zonca seems to be teasing us with possible red herrings but perhaps he is most interested in the three central characters, each of whom has secrets. The case of Dany’s disappearance is eventually solved – or at least there is a confession, but not a clear resolution that ties up all the loose ends.

I’m not sure what to make of this film. As someone very interested in this kind of procedural/rogue cop etc. crime fiction, I found it very interesting, especially because of the three leads. But I do wonder whether a general audience, either of genre cinema or arthouse cinema, will enjoy the film.

Cardinal: Black Fly Season (Canada 2018)

Delorme (Karine Vanasse) and Cardinal (Billy Campbell) with ‘Red’ (Alex Paxton-Beesley)

Cardinal is a Canadian TV police procedural series which has just completed its second season on BBC4 in the UK in the usual Saturday night slot for European noir crime serials. I had watched most of Season 1, but for various reasons didn’t finish it. I must now go back because I was very engaged by Season 2. For the last couple of episodes I switched the subtitles on and I found it much easier to follow the dialogue. The series is broadcast in both English and French in Canada I think. I don’t know if the French is dubbed. I assume that the English language version I watched was synch sound but it does follow that unfortunate Hollywood convention which allows actors to mumble. Apart from that I found it impressive.

The first two seasons of the show are adaptations of novels by Giles Blunt and the third and fourth seasons are expected to follow in a similar way. The first two books each get 6 x 42 episodes or just over 4 hours of screen time, just about enough to be classified as ‘long-form’ TV narratives, allowing a literary or cinematic pacing. Blunt himself is linked to the writing team on the adaptations (which don’t necessarily follow the order of the original novels). The setting is the fictional city of Algonquin Bay which appears to be very closely based on Blunt’s home town of North Bay in North-East Ontario, some 330 kms north of Toronto. North Bay is on the Canadian Shield giving a distinctive landscape and on the shore of Lake Nipissing. The area is part of the homeland of the Nipissing First Nation of Ojibwe and Algonquin peoples and this is an important element in Blackfly Season.

A press briefing by Cardinal with Sergeant Noelle Dyson (Kristen Thomson). I think that’s Ontario’s state flag on the right – still using the red ensign?

The central character is John Cardinal (Billy Campbell), a Detective from the Algonquin Bay Police who in Season 1 returns from Toronto to re-open an old case. He is under a cloud of suspicion and it will turn out that his new partner Lise Delorme, a Québécoise played by Karin Vanasse, is also checking on Cardinal for an internal investigation. Cardinal’s wife Catherine has been suffering from a bi-polar disorder and in Season 2 it will emerge that she has something to do with the suspicions about Cardinal’s activities in Toronto. This set-up suggests a familiar generic device – the younger woman who is super-efficient is partnered with the older man who has all the problems associated with a sick wife (and feelings of responsibility for a daughter at university in Toronto). It’s summer in North Ontario and the blackfly are biting when Cardinal and Delorme are called to investigate the case of a young woman who has been shot in the woods. A bullet has lodged in the young woman’s skull but she has survived although she has lost all memories of how she got into the woods. Gradually it becomes clear that a new group of heroin dealers has moved into the region and are now competing with the established drugs network run by the Northern Raiders bikers’ gang. How does Red (the girl in the woods) fit in with the drugs war? And is she connected to what appears to be some form of ritual killing with a mutilated body found in a cave?

There are a number of elements in this series which interest me. Aesthetically Cardinal follows some of the familiar features of Nordic/North European noirs. There are aerial shots of forests and lakes stretching for miles as a lone vehicle follows a narrow road. This could easily be Sweden in summer. The music and sound mix (another factor sometimes making dialogue difficult to hear) is another reminder of The Swedish/Danish serial The Bridge with a title song recalling both The Bridge and the French serial Witnesses through its ethereal voice and strings. This song, ‘Familiar’, is by the Danish singer/composer Agnes Obel who has contributed songs to various TV productions in Germany, Australia, UK and US. Todor Kobakov is the composer of the overall score for the series. The Nordic connections do work with the summer landscape but are perhaps even closer in Season 1, set in the harsh winter and reminiscent of the Iceland of Trapped (2015).

A still from Season 1 showing Det. Jerry Commanda (Glen Gould) on the right

The story in Season 2 has many familiar elements including the drugs war, questions about possible corruption in the police force and a killer with childhood memories that ‘return’ in unfortunate ways. The intriguing ‘difference’ is the setting in a region with First Nation peoples. The third member of the investigating team is Detective Jerry Commanda (Glen Gould) who is cast as what the character himself calls a ‘native’ police officer. Glen Gould is listed on Wikipedia as an ‘Aboriginal Canadian actor of Mi’kmaq and Italian descent’, born in Nova Scotia. I was intrigued to see also (via IMDb) a casting call for Season 1 of Cardinal in which roles were listed, specifying ‘Aboriginal Canadian’ roles and roles open to ‘all ethnicities’. Commanda uses the names of different First Nations as well as ‘native’ and also refers to various ‘res’ or First Nations reservations. I wish I knew more about recent Canadian debates about First Nations and I’m intrigued as to how First Nations issues are developed in film and TV narratives and how the Canadian approach compares with that in Australia and New Zealand as well as in Scandinavia with Sami peoples. I don’t want to say too much about how the narrative develops in Cardinal because it could spoil the viewing experience.

Cardinal seems to have gone down pretty well in Canada and it has been sold to Sweden, Spain, Germany, Australia and the US. I’ll certainly look out for Seasons 3 and 4 and I’m also now intrigued to read Giles Blunt’s novels. Here’s the Canadian trailer for Season 2: