Murder Most Mundane

Intelligence without make-up: Sofie Gråbøl as detective Sarah Lund in “The Killing” 

Imagine the future. Not your preferred utopia or feared dystopia but what you expect Britain to look like in 30 years. It is not idiotic to think that if current trends continue, Britain, much of the rest of Europe, Australia and North and South America will be more Scandinavian. We will accept the equality of women and women in positions of power. We will be more socially egalitarian, or if inequalities in wealth are still as great as they are now, then the class distinctions left by the old aristocracy will be less important. Society will enforce liberalism with more rules and codes. I know people bemoan our existing PC culture, but I doubt their sincerity because no man is a free-marketeer when his boss unfairly dismisses him, and no woman complains about “political correctness gone mad” when she is the victim of sexual harassment. Modern people want transparent and accountable systems that protect their rights. Even if they do not realise it, even if they think they do not want it, they are groping towards the Scandinavian model.

“If current trends continue” are the four most treacherous words in sociology. Current trends have a habit of stopping in their tracks and heading off in new directions. But the belief that Scandinavia represents a possible future helps to explain the phenomenal success of its crime fiction. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has sold almost 30 million copies. British television has shown three versions of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. Now BBC4 is offering us Danish television’s thriller The Killing, the first drama from Europe that can compete with the best of American TV.

Showing the dark side of supposedly ordered societies is a trick used by 1940s  film noir writers and the authors of English country-house murders, although I think it is fair to say that this is the first and last similarity between them. Scandinavian crime is no different. Mankell’s Kurt Wallander reflects: “The Sweden that was his, the country he had grown up in, that was built after the war, was not as solid as they had thought. Under the surface was quagmire.” 

But for all the corruption shown, the appeal of Scandinavian crime lies in its moral assumptions, which its writers take for granted but outsiders find startlingly modern, even exotic.

Larsson’s Millennium trilogy ends patly with everyone who runs Sweden from the prime minister downwards turning on the misogynists in their midst as they remember that they are good social democrats who must respect fundamental rights.  More satisfyingly, The Killing has a female lead unlike any other I have seen. 

The best way to describe Sofie Gråbøl, who plays detective Sarah Lund, is to list what she is not. She is not a glamorous film star. Neither is she the “feisty” heroine, beloved by television and film executives alike, who is just as tough as the men she works with. Nor is she a feminist heroine, like DCI Tennyson in Prime Suspect, who must cope with the resentments of her male colleagues. True, her deputy is a tough guy, whose willingness to bend the rules contrasts with her adherence to the letter of the law. But what looks like standard male/female typecasting breaks down as the series moves on. Lund operates in a society where a woman in a position of power is unexceptional. As a result, she can be something extraordinary in contemporary drama, an intelligent middle-aged woman who has no time to put on make-up or change her outfit because she is trying to solve the rape and murder of a teenage girl. Instead of worrying about her gender, the camera watches Lund as she quietly notices small details, and becomes ever more preoccupied as the pressure on her builds.

To produce a 20-hour drama (each hour covers a day of the murder investigation) takes some guts, and it is heartening to see that the makers of The Killing have confidence in themselves and their audience. Having freed themselves from stereotypes, and been allowed by Danish culture to make that freedom feel plausible, the writer Søren Sveistrup and the director Birger Larsen reveal the advantages of a detective story unencumbered by the clichés of Hollywood storylines. Most thrillers pile up corpses to hold the attention of the viewers. For the first six hours of The Killing, there is only one murder to solve — the case of Nanna Birk Larsen, whom the police find dead in a river. If this had been a production inspired by art-house cinema, the makers would have emphasised their contempt for Hollywood values by being self-consciously slow and obscure. The writers of The Killing do not suffer from such affectations. They do not want to bore the audience any more than they want to titillate it with sex and guns. 

They find a middle way between the art-house and the multiplex by making an exciting drama about consequences rather than body counts; about how a murder can touch everyone caught up in a police investigation. 

Lund not only rushes to find the killer, but to stop her inquiry running out of control. Each lead has a destructive power. The inquiry finds an oblique connection between the death and the campaign of an idealistic Blairish politician, who is running to be mayor of Copenhagen. His rival, a brutish operator, uses the link to hurt his opponent. Lund thinks that a teacher at the girl’s school may have murdered her. Before she can make an arrest or decide whether her hunch is justified, the girl’s father, whose grief after the murder is almost unbearable to watch, learns of her suspicion and takes the law into his own hands.

The viewer does not just want to know the identity of the murderer, but how many secrets will come out and how much damage will be done before the police make an arrest. The result is a complicated and satisfying story. It offers a competing vision of the world to The Wire, and like The Wire, it feels contemporary because it lives in the present and suggests a vision of what our future may look like. 

BBC4 deserves credit for running a foreign film at peak time on a Saturday night — that takes guts as well. But I wonder if its controller, Richard Klein, is asking himself why it is that first the Americans and now the Danes have raced so far ahead of their contemporaries in British television. If he isn’t, he ought to be.

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