Looking for your next binge-worthy show? Why not try one of these Scandinavian crime dramas! Acquitted, Spring Tide, and Those Who Kill have something for every crime drama aficionado, from the classic “whodunnit?” to even more twisted, dark stories.
DVD Review–Acquitted: Seasons One and Two (Norwegian language series), Spring Tide: Season One (Swedish language series), and Those Who Kill (Danish language series)
These three examples of Scandinavian crime drama provide an intriguing panorama of the human experience. While the absolute best of what humanity can achieve is not depicted, we see people just trying to scrape by mentally and spiritually, people doing what they can to look after their families, people inexorably slipping off the edge, and the wounds of evil and malicious actions festering. Acquitted, Spring Tide, and Those Who Kill are all dark crime series, but the darkness comes from different sources and has very different consequences.
The two-season Acquitted takes a familiar but not overused premise and builds a surprisingly touching human tragedy. Acquitted is the dual story of Aksel Borgen and his small Norwegian hometown. Two decades earlier, Aksel (Nicolai Cleve Broch) was convicted of his girlfriend’s murder and spent a year in prison until a witness came to his rescue and got him released. Unable to deal with the overwhelming popular opinion that still branded him a murderer, Aksel emigrated to Asia and built a successful financial career and a family there. While Aksel is prospering, his hometown is crumbling, as the village’s primary employer, a state-of-the-art solar power company, is in dire financial straits, and if the company fails, the town will die as well. Desperate for a cash influx, the co-owner of the power company (who just happens to be the father of the murdered girl) calls on Aksel to come home and bail out the local economy. Once Aksel returns, however, he faces hostility from every possible front, including a town full of people who still believe him guilty, prominent people who fear that digging into the cold case will drag their personal skeletons out of the closet, and his mother and brother who have been social pariahs ever since the murder.
The actual mystery behind Acquitted is quite easy to solve. Simply by studying the behavior of the various characters, it is clear which character knows the truth of the young woman’s death, and a modest intellectual leap (not even a leap, more of a skip) will lead to the ultimate solution. The first and second season finales simply confirm the theories that the seasoned mystery fan will have concocted by the end of the second episode, at the latest.
So if “whodunit?” is barely a question, why is it worth watching Acquitted? The answer to that lies in the interplay between Aksel and the other characters in the drama, chiefly the murdered girl’s mother, Eva Hansteen (Lena Endre). Broch gives a strong performance as a man obsessed with clearing his own name, even when he starts to doubt his own innocence and sanity, and he alternates between evoking sympathy and frustration from the audience as he thirsts for the truth when no one else cares, and makes terrible personal decisions that may destroy those closest to him.
While the character of Aksel is the center of the plot, it’s Lena Endre’s luminescent portrayal of a vengeful, grieving mother that truly makes the show compelling. Eva begins the series completely convinced of Aksel’s guilt, and her obsession with seeing him unmasked as a murderer makes for a powerhouse performance. What’s remarkable is how completely and thoroughly Endre retools and redirects her character in the wake of the events of the season one finale, which completely shatter her tightly held worldview while forcing her to take steps to protect what’s left of her family.
Other strong performances come from Tobias Santelmann and Anne Marit Jacobsen as Aksel’s brother, Erik, and mother, Mai-Britt. Erik’s life has been stunted by living in his brother’s shadow, and it’s unclear how much of Mai-Britt’s surprising behavior is caused by dementia and how much is caused by repressed rage against the son she believes to be a killer. Henrik Rafaelsen is often unexpectedly poignant as the victim’s brother, who seems to be in a constant state of emotional breakdown. Amrita Acharia is very strong as a prosecutor in season two, and Elaine Tan’s performance as Aksel’s wife, Angeline, is one of the brightest aspects of season one, and it’s unfortunate that her role is reduced to a single cameo in the second season.
In summary, Acquitted is a predictable whodunit and a knockout of an ensemble drama.
Spring Tide opens with a shocking murder: a young, pregnant woman is buried up to her neck in sand and allowed to drown as the tide slowly washes over her. Decades pass, the lead investigators leave the force or pass away, and the crime remains unsolved. Eventually, the daughter of one of the detectives from the original investigation decides to explore the cold case, leading to revelations that a lot of people are not prepared to face.
The first season is ten episodes long, although the plot could easily have been condensed into eight or even six episodes. Spring Tide incorporates a handful of other plots into the narrative, including a corporate executive’s determination to cover up a long-held secret, a couple of thugs who take pleasure in beating up homeless people, well covered-up police corruption, and a collection of people in various stages of grief. It’s a solid, twisty mystery, with a lot of good performances.
Most of the actors ought to be familiar to fans of Scandinavian crime television, with many of them playing prominent roles in The Bridge, Wallander, and Beck. Julia Ragnarsson stars as the young investigator Olivia Rönning, and Helena Bergström is icily villainous as the businesswoman with a dark past. Dag Malmberg brings a gentle pathos to the role of Nils Wendt, who is performing his own investigation into the murder on the beach; Cecilia Nilsson is warm and terrific as the police Chief Inspector Mette Olsäter; and Johan Widerberg is a delight as the shifty, good-hearted police informant and petty criminal Minken.
Also of note is Abbas (Dar Salim), a knife-throwing reformed criminal who performs tasks for the police but is not bound to the rules of law; his role is minor, but he definitely deserves his own spin-off. Best of all, however, is Kjell Bergqvist as the ex-detective Tom Stilton, a talented investigator who had a breakdown after failing to solve the case and now is homeless, eking out a living selling magazines on the street. Bergqvist has an indefinable charisma that makes every scene compelling, saying volumes with a simple gaze full of pain and regret, and telling Stilton’s backstory through his posture alone. It’s a stellar, understated performance that relies on hints of emotions rather than over-dramatics.
Spring Tide, like Acquitted, succeeds as it does due to superb acting performances and intriguingly defined characters.
Finally, the title Those Who Kill may be recognized by fans of the Americanized version of the series, but this is the original Danish show. Those Who Kill has many great aspects to it, although the savvy viewer will see numerous instances where critical plot points and characterizations have been borrowed from other crime movies and shows, such as The Silence of the Lambs (and other entries in the Hannibal Lecter saga), Criminal Minds, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Cracker, CSI, Crossing Jordan, and many other shows that deal in violent crimes. The Canadian crime series Murdoch Mysteries happily tips its homburg at all the homages to popular culture it incorporates into its narratives and is all the more fun for it, but Those Who Kill suffers from the fact that many aspects of its narratives have been done before on other series—and executed much more skillfully.
This is a dark series, with the episodes divided into two-part mysteries. The villains are unsettling, and the situations the killers create are downright creepy. Everything is well done, just familiar, if the viewer has seen this genre in the past. The main characters are also archetypes. I have written before about the trope of the “tough-as-nails female law enforcement officer with a disastrous personal life,” usually with “tousled short hair and a trademark leather jacket” (DVD Review—The Passenger, Dvd Review—True Detective: The Complete Second Season). Katrine Ries Jensen (Laura Bach) is much in the same mold, although she doesn’t wear a leather jacket until the fifth episode. Jensen’s past is slowly revealed over the course of the series, and we see her alternate between courageous cop, terrified victim, and PTSD battler from episode to episode.
Jakob Cedergren plays Thomas Schaeffer, an expert in criminal psychology. The problem with Schaeffer’s character is that his tropes are advanced without full justification. He is reluctant to return to criminal investigation, but his motives aren’t sufficiently developed soon enough. As soon as we see his family life, we know that things will fall apart, but the initial separation with his wife comes so abruptly, it lacks resonance. Lars Miggelsen is particularly strong as the steely but caring police superior Magnus Bisgaard.
The crimes are often violent and twisted, and they do not make for relaxing viewing. A serial killer who buries victims underground and toys with them for days, a psychopath who kills and insinuates himself with victims to find the “perfect” family, and a brutal murder in a jail all unsettle the viewer. Extreme close-ups of nudity and bloodshed are unpleasant, and the graphic nature of the material frequently distracts from the narrative and characterizations. At times, attempts to shock overshadow dramatic resonance.
Those Who Kill isn’t a bad show at all, just an unoriginal one, compared to the leading lights in the genre.
Fans of Scandinavian crime drama ought to check out these three series, particularly Acquitted and Spring Tide.
Acquitted: Seasons One and Two (Norwegian language series)
Spring Tide: Season One (Swedish language series)
Those Who Kill (Danish language series)