When it comes to crime shows from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland, one series stands out above all else. Consistently brilliant and unnerving, it made an impact in the way that other Scandi Noir series haven't. That show is The Bridge – and here’s why it’s the pinnacle of Nordic Noir…
From the outset, The Bridge threw down the gauntlet to other crime shows. Its opening murder scene was a stunner, elevating the stakes for muder mystery shows - not only was it gruesome, but it also served to drive the thematic series narrative. The series opens with the discovery of a body sawn in two and left on the border between Denmark and Sweden, half in each country. It then raised the bar by having the corpse turn out to be halves of two different bodies. Over subsequent seasons, there have been bodies arranged to depict a traditional family, infected victims left to die on an abandoned ship and, in season four, a stoning. The Bridge does not shy away from shocking crimes – and you never know when another will occur.
As engrossing as the first season of The Killing was, its drawn-out investigation into the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen (Julie Ølgaard) came with all the twists and red herrings you’d expect from a series in which the killer isn’t revealed until episode 20. As great as the series was, it stuck to the conventions of the classic crime thriller; The Bridge changed the rules completely. In the wake of The Bridge, other series have clearly taken a leaf out of its inventive murder book – case in point: Midnight Sun’s death by helicopter rotor.
Few Nordic Noir characters have made the impression Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) has. The vintage Porsche-driving, leather pants-wearing, socially awkward protagonist of The Bridge is single-minded when it comes to pursuing a case – a symptom of her all-but-stated Asperger’s. She’s good at her job, and unlike The Killing’s Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) doesn’t make it a habit to go into dimly lit premises on her own.
A comparison can be found in Jordskott’s Eva Thörnblad (Moa Gammel), a detective so dedicated she takes a bullet at close range in the series’ opening minutes. Granted, she was wearing a protective vest under her clothes, but her grim determination, fuelled by a dark family tragedy, is on a par with Saga’s. The fantasy element of Jordskott, however, takes it more into Twin Peaks and Lost domain than your typical Nordic Noir.
Dicte also has a strong, blonde lead character in the form of crime reporter Dicte Svendsen (Iben Hjejle) – a woman who doesn’t let anything get in her way. If she needs to pee while on a story, she squats behind some bins then gets back to it. When a cop asks her to use her “feminine charms” to convince a photographer colleague to turn in some crime scene photos, she uses a similar tactic on the cop to get the scoop. As good as Eva and Dicte are, however, there can only be one Saga.
It’s hard to beat the icy climes of Seyðisfjörður, the remote Icelandic setting of Trapped for noir-ish ambience. The dismembered body which kicks the story into motion is found in a fjord, for crying out loud. And it’s those harsh, unforgiving elements that result in the passengers of a passing cruise liner getting, well, trapped in the small town following a severe storm. The freezing cold snow and vast overcast sky are as beautiful as they are oppressive.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t get much more oppressive than an underground bunker, like the disused bomb shelter where Valkyrien’s wronged doctor Ravn (Sven Nordin) conducts his off-the-record operations. And although The Bridge can’t compete on either the picturesque level of Trapped or with the subterranean gloom of Valkyrien, it also has to work harder to make its depiction of big city Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden chillingly foreboding. Its setting doesn’t do all the work for it. Thanks to omnipresent grey skies, stark buildings and muted wardrobe choices, there’s little cheer to be found in The Bridge.
Comedy? Didn’t we just establish The Bridge’s oppressive credentials? Even so, The Bridge does have moments of humour in among the ritualistic killings. In seasons one and two, they mostly came from affable detective Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), whose big laugh and easy demeanour took the edge off the otherwise constant intensity. As the series has progressed, the quirks of Saga’s personality have given rise to a number of great one-liners (“very few women fantasise about small penises”; “saying it over and over doesn’t make it any more helpful”) and amusing moments (her mercenary attitude towards sex) without it feeling like her unnamed disorder is being sent up.
Of course, a series like Lilyhammer, which plays things much more for laughs, is always going to be more successful in the comedy stakes. The fish-out-of-water premise of former New York gangster Frank Tagliano (Steven Van Zandt) relocating to small-town Norway is just the right amount of ridiculous, while the distinctively Norwegian brand of black comedy makes Lilyhammer anything but The Sopranos: Norway.
From its socially conscious murderers, who more often than not kill to make some kind of political statement, to its matter-of-fact portrayal of a woman with a form of autism, The Bridge has plenty to say about today’s world and the issues that divide it. Climate change, immigration, gender theory… you name a hot-button issue, The Bridge has likely gone there.
Some similar terrain is covered in Sweden’s Modus, in which criminal profiler Inger Johanne Vik (Melinda Kinna man) has to contend with the type of twisted killer you’d expect to see pushing their agenda in The Bridge. The difference is that in Modus, we do actually see the murderer from the get-go, following his crimes as we do the investigation. It’s a different approach – and one that also worked in British-Irish drama The Fall. Modus also shines a light on autism, with a sterling performance from Esmeralda Struwe as Inger’s daughter Stina, who witnesses one of the murders.
The opening titles
If nothing else, The Bridge has easily the best theme tune of any Nordic Noir series: the haunting “Hollow Talk” by Danish act Choir of Young Believers.
Watch The Bridge on Thursday 1 March at 10:25pm on SBS. You can now stream the entire final season of The Bridge at SBS On Demand: