Wednesday, 13 November 2013

TV8: Scandinavian Noir 1: The Killing & The Killing (updated at bottom)

The term ‘Scandinavian Noir’ refers to a recent series of books and films (thrillers or crime fiction) which take place in Scandinavia. This includes films like those based on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy as well as television shows like Wallander and The Killing. Scandinavian Noir is dark, moody, realistic and morally complex. It also almost invariably includes a feature which lifts it well above the average thrillers made in other parts of the world. That feature is an emphasis on justice issues, whether it be racism, sexism, elitism, immigration, military abuses, etc. (including peace and environment issues), so you will not be surprised to learn that I am a fan of Scandinavian Noir.

The Killing (Danish original)

Even so, I delayed watching The Killing for many years, despite hearing good things while I was still living in London. The reasons for that delay are simple: 1) I consider the English-language title to be one of the lamest titles for a TV show in history; and 2) the title and brief description of the show (police investigating the death of a teenage girl) made me think ‘serial killer’, and, as I have previously mentioned, I am neither a fan of police shows nor of serial killer shows. 

I think it was one of my friends at Greenbelt who told me I needed to watch The Killing anyway. So I finally gave in and picked up used copies of all three seasons while I was in London in August. I have now watched the first two seasons, which is a lot of watching because the first season is a full twenty hours long (longer than any season of North American television since the sixties). My thanks to everyone who recommended it to me. The Killing is indeed a television masterpiece, worthy of all the acclaim it has received, and it is not really about a serial killer. 

Season one of The Killing centres on police investigator Sarah Lund (played by Sofie Grabol) and her  obsessive search for the killer of seventeen-year-old Nanna Birk Larson. Lund is in her last day of work in Copenhagen before moving to Sweden to get married, but she just can’t let this case go. Important side stories include the life of Nanna’s family after her murder as well as a political story about the campaign of Troels Hartmann to become mayor of Copenhagen. All of these stories are told with great patience while not preventing this long series from being both fast-paced and riveting. Twists and turns abound. Indeed, one of The Killing’s few flaws is that there are so many twists that they become somewhat predictable. Issues like racial profiling, immigration, gang violence and many more are dealt with during the twenty hours (most as part of the political story). The careful attention to the impact of a murder on the victim’s family is a highlight.

But the heart of The Killing’s greatness is the terrific performance of Grabol and her fellow actors. Grabol chose to play Lund as a cool, driven, fiercely intelligent, unemotional and yet vulnerable woman and this worked perfectly for me. The other actors are likewise natural and excellent in their roles. When combined with brilliant writing, the dark moody atmosphere (it definitely has a noir feel) and the outstanding music, The Killing becomes one of the best prime-time ‘soaps’ ever made, comparable to anything you see on American cable TV.

The second season of The Killing isn’t quite as good, but it’s still great TV. It concerns the murder of people associated with a group of Danish soldiers serving in Afghanistan who killed a civilian family. Another excellent ensemble cast. If anything, the second season is even darker than the first, and that’s saying something. The two seasons of The Killing get ****.

The Killing (American version)

American cable TV finally caught up with The Killing and decided to make its own version in 2011 (the Danish show first aired in 2007). The American version tells basically the same story but sets it in Seattle. By choosing Seattle, this version is able to maintain the grey moody atmosphere (it seems to rain every day in Seattle, at least in October) of the original. It also retains the same music, which is great, but the music is softer here and this version fails to retain the way the music which signals the end of each episode leads into the credits, which, for me, is a huge error, because that music at the end was one of the highlights of the original. While the storyline is largely the same, there are significant differences. 

Sarah ‘Linden’ is played by Mireille Enos. Enos does a very good job, but she cannot pull off what Grabol did in the original and her Linden is warmer and much less intense. I would say that this difference represents a significant way in which the original The Killing differs from the remake. There is a raw intensity in the original that grabs you and keeps you glued to the screen that is missing in the remake. In my opinion, none of the acting in the remake is as strong as the acting in the original, though most of it is competent enough, especially for TV. But it’s not just the acting that is weaker. The writing in the remake, like the music, has a sentimental edge that is completely absent in the original. The remake strives for its own dark edge but doesn’t quite get there and the dialogue doesn’t feel as sharp (though I know enough Danish to know that the subtitles I was reading were very loose and often missed entire sentences).

On the positive side, the American version makes a greater effort at character development, especially with the major characters. An entire episode sets the investigation aside to concentrate on the characters. I appreciate that, though it also contributes to the sentimentality mentioned above. 

The American versions chose to tell the first story over two seasons, leaving the first season ending with a cliffhanger that diverges significantly from the original story. Since that is all I have seen, I will wait to see whether the second half does as well as the first.

I have a feeling that if I had not seen the Danish original, I would have appreciated the American remake much more (i.e. I am unable to be entirely objective). The remake is above-average TV fare, but it does not stand up that well against the original and I can only give it at most ***+.

I have now watched the second season. The second half of the Danish Season One story has been dropped and the same characters have been used to tell a very different story. There are some things about the American story that I appreciate more than the Danish story but it has a more disconnected feel (the killing just doesn't seem justified) and overall the Danish story is much more realistic. In the end, I retain my above impressions about the American version.

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