It’s taken a long time for Stockholm’s top cop to make it to the screen. The star of a series of award-winning, best-selling novels, detective Ewert Grens has – one 2012 movie aside – stuck to the printed page, despite the offers coming thick and fast. Suddenly he’s everywhere, with both a Hollywood movie and a Swedish series out now. The movie, titled The Informer, has relocated its story to the US and been reworked to leave the Grens character in a supporting role (he’s also played by rapper Common). It’s safe to say the Swedish series is a lot more faithful to the source material.
Lidia (Ilinca Neacsu) is a young Romanian waitress who is lured to Sweden by her boyfriend Lucian (Cristian Bota). He promises her a better job and a better life in Stockholm; instead, she finds herself thrown into sex slavery. The brutal pimp in charge of the prostitution ring has already beaten up Alina (Alexandra Sarbei), and there’s no reason at all to think Lidia won’t be next. But it soon becomes clear that she’s made of sterner stuff, and her story isn’t going to just be one of survival, but of revenge.
Meanwhile, Stockholm detective Ewert Grens (Leonard Terfelt) is expecting his first child with his partner (and fellow cop) Anni (Sandra Andreis). You don’t have to be an expert in Nordic Noir to know a happy ending isn’t on the cards in the first episode of a series, and Gren’s pursuit of local crime boss Jochum Lang (Joakim Sällquist) rapidly becomes a very personal quest.
Based on the first novel to feature Grens by acclaimed Swedish writing team Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, the television version makes a few tweaks to the character that were mildly controversial to fans. For one thing, he’s younger here, and the story digs a little into an origin that the novel mostly left as backstory. For a television series (there are three more series planned, each adapting another Roslund and Hellström novel), the changes work. This feels more like an introduction to the character, giving him more of a chance to grow over the course of the series. Well, maybe not exactly grow: what would a Nordic Noir series be without a cop slowly sinking into the darkness?
The darkness of Sweden’s underworld is one the authors knew well. Hellström (who died in 2017), was a former criminal who later worked to rehabilitate other offenders, while Roslund worked as a crime reporter for a number of years. Their expertise gives Box 21 a harsher tone than a lot of recent crime dramas, with a brutal edge to both the crimes and the criminals. This is at its heart a story about revenge, and it's very clear right from the start that vengeance is going to be justified.
After Lidia’s increasingly savage treatment at the hands of both her clients and the men who’ve enslaved her, one of Grens’ fellow cops, Mariana Hermansson (Mimosa Willamo) takes a personal interest in her situation. But it’s not until Lidia sets the next stage of her plan in motion, sparking a hostage situation at the hospital where she’s been taken, that Grens and his co-workers – hostage negotiator Tobias Nordwall (Simon J Berger) and Sven Sundkvist (Kristofer Kamiyasu) – become drawn into her plight.
This isn’t the kind of series where things settle down into a steady pattern. Various characters and their stories intertwine across the six episodes, while Grens’ investigation into sex trafficking goes international, taking him across Europe – and also to some personal places he never wanted to visit.
Despite the pure evil of sex trafficking, this isn’t a simple story of straightforward good versus evil; like all the best Nordic Noir, this deals in shades of grey, and when the bad guys get what they deserve it’s rarely a cause for outright celebration. For all the darkness here, redemption, even for a character like Jochum, is never completely off the table.
But it’s a hard road to go down, and when the end comes it just might be the last thing you expect.
Box 21 is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
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