Border offers all kinds of challenges to the average film fan. It also challenges anyone who wants to write about it without spoilers. On this basis I’ll just offer clues without being explicit. The original idea is taken from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish fantasy author who became an international name with the publication of his novel Let the Right One in 2004 and its subsequent adaptation as both a Swedish film in 2008 (and then a US film) and an English-language stage production in 2013. The story, Gräns, was first published in Sweden in 2006 and the final script for the film was written by director Ali Abbasi, and Isabella Eklöf (whose new film as director is released in the UK soon). Fans of Lindqvist’s stories will know what to expect from Border, though I understand there are some additions to the literary narrative. Ali Abbasi is an Iranian who has lived in Sweden and now Denmark. His previous film, Shelley (Denmark 2017) suggests he might have pushed Lindqvist’s script in specific directions. The fact that he is a migrant may also be significant.
Tina (Eva Malender) is a customs official – a ‘border guard’ – at the ferry port of Kapellskär on the Baltic coast, north of Stockholm. Ferries come from Åland, Finland and Estonia. Tina has an unusual ability to ‘sniff out’ contraband. She may also have other unusual abilities to go with her appearance. These include a close affinity with wild animals and with the whole ecology of her forest home. Rather than me describing Tina, just look at her image and make up your own mind what her life might have been like up until now. She lives with a man who trains and ‘shows’ dogs, but her relationship seems not to be physical. Her only other contact is with her father who is in a care home. Work is the only part of her life which gives her satisfaction, partly because her special talent is appreciated by co-workers. One day she stops a man and discovers something which starts a criminal investigation in which she takes an active role. On another occasion she stops a man who turns out to share some of her own characteristics. She won’t be able to stop herself finding out more about Vore (Eero Milinoff). I won’t say any more except that the script manages to bring together three potential narratives. Tina and Vore must discover each other, Tina must discover herself (who or what is she?) and the criminal investigation must be resolved. Any understanding of her actions must also contend with Nordic folk tales.
Border manages to resolve all three narrative questions for me. I don’t want to make direct comparisons with Let the Right One In because that film seemed to me a unique film from a precise moment. Border does something slightly different and ‘fits’ another moment when film culture generally is focused on both gender and ecology as well as questions about migrants moving across physical ‘borders’. The acting performances of Eval Malender and Eero Milinoff are very good, especially given the make-up/prostheses they have to wear. I’ve seen Melander in other films but of course she was unrecognisable as Tina. Tina’s father is an interesting character. His role, as in many Swedish films, references the care system. He also represents a man from an earlier generation with a grown-up daughter – an important figure in different ways in the novels and film adaptations of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. Border seems to me a Nordic narrative with strong metaphorical references. It seems to have worked well with audiences and suggests that Nordic cinema still has much to offer. I watched the film on MUBI. I believe it is now available on other VOD services in the UK.
The short UK trailer:
I’m not sure I’ve ever been to watch a new film that has been so heavily criticised and denounced by both critics and audiences. It isn’t the total disaster those reviews suggests, but given the array of talent in front of and behind the camera, it isn’t great. Something has clearly gone wrong and I’m still struggling to see where the blame lies.
The Snowman is an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 ‘Harry Hole’ novel. There are now 11 crime novels featuring the maverick cop. The Snowman is No7 in the series, though numbers 1 and 2 were translated into English after The Snowman. So, for UK readers it was number 5. The first question then is, why start with No. 5? The response has been so poor that it seems unlikely any more will be adapted in English. Why it was adapted at this point seems to be a consequence of the usual crap which surrounds studio pictures. The novel appeared in English in 2011 – at the peak of ‘Nordic Noir‘ in the UK/US. A quick glance back through my posts and the various events I organised on that topic suggests that this was indeed the case.
Nesbø has always been ripe for adaptation. His self-confessed love of American culture pushes his crime fiction away from the ‘Nordic Noir’ ideal that developed from Mah Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (though he claimed his own links to the Martin Beck books with an introduction to one of the re-issued novels). His hero Harry Hole likes rock music (Nesbø played in a band) and American films and there is much more of a Hollywood thriller feel to the novels. Perhaps he is like Stieg Larsson to a certain extent – but far less overtly political. Harry is like Larsson’s characters though – in the sense that he is personally involved in the narratives. Either he is targeted by the villain or the narrative is introduced by something out of his past. In The Snowman, the Harry-Rakel-Oleg triangle is central in more ways than one.
My memory is that Scorsese was named quite early on as interested in making a Harry Hole movie, but instead the first Nesbø film was Headhunters (Norway 2011), adapted from a standalone novel and followed by Nesbø’s involvement in a TV series, Okkupert (2015), a political thriller imagining Norway occupied by the Russians. The Snowman arrives perhaps four or five years too late. I don’t think Nordic Noir is finished but it doesn’t have the same ‘must see’ cachet any more.
The next issue is comprehension. The Harry Hole novels are in a distinct series – they have the overall narrative ‘arc’ that we now have to acknowledge for long form narratives and in that sense they match both the Beck and Wallander books – though I find Harry a less appealing character than either of the other police officers. Each novel draws on what has happened before so The Snowman relies on audience knowledge about Harry and about Rakel and her son Oleg. Harry is not married to Rakel, yet she is the love of his life. Oleg is not his son, but Harry tries to act like his father. If you don’t know this – and Harry’s history of alcoholism and his loner status within the Oslo Police – you can’t understand him. The script (which has some input from Nesbø, some from Søren Sveistrup, the Danish writer of The Killing and some from the Brits, Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini) seems to me something of a lash-up – as if it has been re-written many times. It does include the information about Harry, but not in an easily understandable way. The book is 550 pages so a great deal has to be left out or dealt with in different ways. Some of the changes are puzzling. The novel opens with a prologue in 1980, in which the date is signalled by a radio announcement about Reagan’s election victory over Jimmy Carter. It then comes forward to 2004 and victory for George W. Bush. In the film, ‘the past’ features a boy being quizzed about Norwegian modern history and there are no American references.
The need to reduce and select the narrative data explains why, even for someone who knows the Harry Hole novels reasonably well, the narrative seems complex. Against this, the cinematography offers us plenty of snowbound landscapes and there is a very talented cast. Alas, the way they are used is also problematic. I was watching out for Sofia Heflin, the Swedish star of the Nordic Noir series The Bridge and it was only at the end of the film that I realised she had been a character who was quickly killed off. Similarly, the Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, a star from Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) and many other films, has a minor role. There are some Nordic actors in bigger roles and I enjoyed the irony of Jonas Karlsson playing the villain in this film and the despised police ‘manager’ in the Swedish Beck TV series. But mostly it is British and American actors filling the lengthy cast list. Apart from a child with an American whine, most of the actors use what might be described as unaccented ‘International English’ and I can live with that (although a Norwegian pronunciation of ‘Hole’ might have worked better). The tragedy of the film is to see a director such as the Swede Tomas Alfredson, internationally lauded for Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008) and the English language Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), lose control of a production which also boasts Dion Beebe as cinematographer and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, not to mention Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the leading cast members.
Michael Fassbender is a fine actor and it sounds like great casting, but he isn’t my idea of Harry Hole – and that’s always the problem with adapting a novel with a ‘known’ character. Audiences who revere Fassbender but don’t know Nesbø’s character will also be puzzled I think. Val Kilmer and Toby Jones just seem odd as Bergen police officers and Anne Reid as a next door neighbour in Oslo is a surprise for British audiences (she has been an important TV actor in the UK for many decades). Working Title, the most successful British film production company through its long relationships with Universal and Studio Canal, succeeded with Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor . . . , but that was a StudioCanal project. The Snowman is a Universal picture and I wonder if that is the problem. The Snowman seems similar to David Fincher’s Hollywood version of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (US 2011) – but at least that film proved popular with audiences. I’ve rather lost interest in Harry Hole since Book 9 and now it looks like there won’t be any more film adaptations. Now, if they’d started with The Redbreast (Book 3, the first to be translated) it might have worked, but it would probably have been too ‘Norwegian’ for a big budget international thriller. Such is the film business. Instead of a distinct Nordic Noir, Hollywood wants another snowbound police thriller. Here’s the trailer for The Snowman, which is visually intriguing – but the dialogue is terrible. Pretty much sums up the film I’m afraid.
I was surprised and delighted when five Beck films were picked up by the BBC and broadcast recently on BBC4. The first film I watched was enjoyable and entertaining but it seemed to miss the most important element of the famous series of books – the critique of Swedish society. However, I’ve watched four more and these new films have now definitely won me over.
Martin Beck is important as arguably the first protagonist of what has for the last seven or eight years become known as ‘Nordic Noir’ in the UK and elsewhere. (I’m sure it has been called something slightly different in Scandinavia for several years.) The ten novels by the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (living together as a couple) were written between 1965 and 1975. All ten novels were adapted for the cinema, some outside Sweden. (I discuss Bo Widerberg’s 1976 Beck film The Man On the Roof here.) The earliest film adaptations featured different actors playing Martin Beck but a series of six Swedish-German films in 1993-4 all featured Gösta Ekman as Beck. The current sets of films began in 1997 and (like the later Wallander films) are new stories using the central characters. Per Wahlöö died in 1975 and Maj Sjövall has not to my knowledge written any more Beck stories, so the 30 films since 1997 all use new stories.
The importance of the original 10 novels was that the writers, Marxists both, attempted to offer a critique of Swedish society. This meant a level of realism in the police procedural and a level of political awareness and moral commitment by Beck himself. This in turn inspired later writers such as Henning Mankell (who wrote an introduction for the most recent UK translation of the first Beck novel Roseanna first published in 1965). And it was this element that I thought was missing in the first of the films broadcast by BBC4. I realise now that this was the last film of ‘Series 4’ from 2009. In Sweden the 90 minute films have tended to go straight to DVD with only occasional theatrical releases, though I believe the more recent films have appeared first on TV in Sweden.
The four later BBC4 screenings are of the 2015 films from Series 5. Beck is played (as in all 30 films) by Peter Haber, a veteran Swedish actor in TV and film, best known outside the country perhaps for the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in which he played Martin Vanger. Haber is perfectly cast as Beck, embodying the character introduced in Roseanna all those years ago. The others in the team have been ‘updated’ and Beck now leads a team of five. His right-hand man is Gunvald Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt), almost the polar opposite of Beck but also complementary – someone decisive, cool under pressure but perhaps too quick to act, even if he is often shown to be correct. The two officers who do most of the leg-work are Oscar and Jenny and at the start of the fifth series, a new member is introduced in the form of Ayda, a young ‘civilian’ brought in as a research and IT expert. Ayda might be seen as the indicator of the influence of the recent explosion of female investigators in Scandinavian crime fiction. Her character’s name (Ayda Çetin) suggests that she is from a Turkish migrant background. She speaks several languages and is clearly adept in both IT skills and police/intelligence procedures. When they first meet there is a potential clash with Gunvald (because Ayda is not a police officer) which Beck quickly attempts to avert. The script seems to be pointing towards a future narrative involving Gunvald and Ayda.
In the third film of Series 5, Oscar is developed as a character partly through the coincidence that his wife is in the final stages of pregnancy at the same time as one of the characters in the case the team is investigating. Oscar is being teased, especially by Gunvald. He is a ‘new man’ in many ways and perhaps he is a little naive but he is a reliable and competent police officer. All this comes into focus when Jenny is asked about what it is like to work on the team. She then gives her own analysis of what might happen when Beck retires and each of the others ‘moves up’ a place. She seems quite happy that she will then be third out of four and a new member will be the junior. I realised at this point that I had become much more aware of the individual characters in the team and I was getting much more out of the show. The stories too seemed to be developing much more in line with how the novels had originally worked out. I should also mention that another new character in Series 5 is the new head of the whole police operation. This is Klas Fredén and he seems a familiar character from procedurals anywhere. He’s much younger than Beck and very managerial with arrogance and a ‘touchy-feely’ manner. Significantly he is immediately shown to be completely wrong in over-ruling Gunvald – again perhaps foreshadowing future developments.
Martin Beck is a wonderful character who is gentle and understanding but still an efficient cop who doggedly sticks to his task and solves crimes through hard work rather than flashes of genius. The critique is not direct but the crimes are contextualised in terms of recognisable human behaviour and not something fantastical. I’d very much like to see more of the thirty films please BBC4. In the meantime the arrival of The Bridge 3 is eagerly awaited.
Nordic Noir TV films are discussed in Chapter 9 of The Global Film Book.
The Hunters was a big hit in Sweden in the 1990s but, as far as I am aware, didn’t receive a UK cinema release. It wasn’t until the success of Scandinavian TV noir dramas that UK distributors began to look out for Scandinavian genre films. Consequently it was only in 2012 that I learned about The Hunters when Arrow released its sequel with the English title False Trail (Jägarna 2, Sweden 2011). The original film was then given a UK DVD release.
The Hunters turns out to be a genre classic full of familiar elements. It is no surprise that it was a big hit or that Hollywood attempted to persuade writer-director Kjell Sundvall to remake it in an American setting. That didn’t happen but the film is intriguing in the mix of universal and Scandinavian elements – something which in turn perhaps explains the contradictory critical responses to the film. Its narrative is basically the same as in the sequel. The central character, Erik, a Stockholm policeman played by the familiar figure of Rolf Lassgård, returns to his home town in the far north of Sweden, ostensibly for his father’s funeral. Later it is revealed that he has left Stockholm after the trauma of a recent case and has been transferred to this rural backwater. He is reunited with his brother who stayed on in the family home. One of Erik’s first tasks as a new local policeman is to investigate illegal poaching of game in the area (the film begins with the killing and butchery of elks by unidentified poachers). It soon becomes apparent that there is a local conspiracy between some police officers and officials and local hunters. Matters become personal for Erik who is ostracised by many in the local community and who soon finds himself suspecting his own brother to be involved in poaching. The situation worsens when a Russian fruit-picker is accidentally shot. Eventually, another familiar figure arrives from Stockholm, a female prosecutor who joins up with Erik to forward the investigation. A grisly climax is inevitable.
In the early parts of the film I was reminded of Cimino’s The Deerhunter with the depiction of local hunters as a boisterous male group with generic character types, the leaders, the clowns, the weak members – a dangerous camaraderie fostered by alcohol. I reviewed the sequel soon after seeing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Denmark 2012) which also focuses on the secrecy and conspiracies of small town life. That film is essentially a melodrama about the persecution of the central character. The Hunters too becomes partly a family melodrama about Erik’s relationship with his brother Leif and their relationships with their father. But I’m also reminded of Carlos Saura’s celebrated 1966 film La caza (The Hunt). Saura’s film works as a metaphor for life under Franco’s regime in Spain – the hunt provides the explosive setting for men to argue between themselves, to be aggressive towards women etc. In Swedish narratives there are important resonances in the choice of settings and in particular the journey from the far North to Stockholm and the ‘return of the natives’ back from Stockholm (at one point Erik is presented with an award for ‘returnee of the year’). The elements in the story do sometimes feel hackneyed – a Filipina working in a bar, a man with learning difficulties caught up in the intrigue, Lief’s brother’s passion for opera – but that’s only because we’ve encountered them in the years since in various Scandinavian noir crime dramas.
The Hunters is strong genre entertainment. It’s nearly two hours of action with strong performances especially from Lassgård and from Lennart Jähkel as Leif. It serves as an interesting example of Swedish commercial filmmaking and is especially useful as a starting point for studying ‘Nordic noir TV’ as discussed in Chapters 4 and 9 in The Global Film Book.
Arrow Official Trailer for the DVD release: