Our first look at Lieutenant Kahina Zadi (Leila Bekhti) – the heroine of Midnight Sun – is of her swimming laps. She’s strong, unpretentious, and intense. About to take two weeks holiday from her job as a homicide detective, Zadi seeks isolation, telling a woman at the pool she’s looking forward to sleeping.
But one glass of wine into her break and she’s drawn back to work – a French national has been gruesomely murdered in Kiruna, a Swedish mining town located 256 km north of the Polar Circle, where the sun doesn’t set for most of the year. Zadi will take the case – happy to forfeit R&R and escape whatever trouble has suddenly arrived on her doorstep in the form of a mysterious young man from Marseille.
With just a handful of scenes we learn a lot about Zadi. She’s smart, driven, and isolated. She’s got a secret – her personal life is intriguing; her mental health in a fragile state. With its roots in Scandinavian crime fiction and film noir, the genre of television drama we now know as ‘Nordic noir’ is regularly lauded for the formidable, fascinating women at its fore. Midnight Sun is no exception.
Nordic noir constructs morally intricate worlds with low-key suspense. While it directly scrutinises social and political issues alongside the crime, Nordic noir’s dissection of gender roles is usually expressed through the nuances of characterisation rather than plot.
From The Killing’s Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) to The Bridge’s Saga Norén (Sofia Helin), Nordic noir collapses clichés. Lund and Norén embody traits commonly identified as masculine – they are driven, career-focused, unemotional, and relentless in their focus on the job. Like real people, these women are allowed to be many things. Alienated and obsessive, Lund and Norén are permitted flaws and complexity and inner turmoil without questioning their capability to execute their work. Instead, these women get to be messy and make mistakes without forfeiting our empathy.
Importantly, the women of Nordic noir aren’t defined by their relationships to men. Not concerned with being likeable, they don’t court favour with social niceties, and when it comes to sex, they desire and seek it, but don’t use it for professional gain. Lund’s iconic and ‘unsexy’ Faroese sweater (her ‘uniform’) highlights her rejection of a more amenable femininity as a way to get ahead in a man’s world. Men don’t idealise the women of Nordic noir, and as a result neither do we.
But there’s also something more potent at work here. Nordic noir is so engaging not just because it destabilises gender roles within the television crime landscape. With a woman’s eyes on the crimes another dimension of disquiet is added to the drama. It begs the question: what are these dramas actually investigating? There is the mechanics of a crime. But there is also the human psychology behind it, and the social conditions and relationships that spawn it. That women have control over investigations into violent crimes that are, for the most part, perpetrated by men against women, allows us to see them as something more than just the silent, lifeless victim in this equation.
Women in Nordic noir bear witness. They hold men to account. And they do it with a fierce determination that speaks to some greater social purpose – stalking the bloody landscape, sniffing it for clues, and refusing to cease hunting or look away from the horrors until something resembling justice is secured. Their eyes are open to the darkness in the world because it’s something many women have personally experienced. There is an omnipresent light illuminating the darkness in Midnight Sun, a natural spotlight on evil. Like the women who have born witness before her, Lieutenant Zadi’s eyes will be wide open until sunset.
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