If you’ve ever watched Trapped (and if you haven’t, you should; the Icelandic crime series is one of the classic Nordic Noirs – luckily it’s streaming at SBS On Demand) you know that Ólafur Darri Ólafsson has the kind of screen presence you can’t look away from. It’s not just that he’s 6 foot 5 tall and looming over everyone else on screen, though that definitely plays a part. Even his native Iceland, where he’s filmed some of his best work, seems slightly less vast and foreboding with him around; he’s a rare actor that can dominate a landscape even when it could clearly kill him without a moment’s notice.
It’s not the beard either, though he has the kind of facial upholstery that would make him a shoo-in for Santa if it ever turns white. And it’s not his way with words, though he’s delivered plenty of memorable lines in a wide range of Hollywood productions over the last decade, including Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the first series of True Detective, and a bunch of characters with names like Pickaxe, The Maidmasher, The Wall (in giant shark movie The Meg) and Rugen the Leper King in Netflix’s recent take on the Arthurian myth, Cursed.
The heart of his appeal is the kind of burly charm that can make him one of the most likable characters on the screen if he goes with it – or a deeply sinister figure if he’s playing someone with a dark side. It’s something that goes beyond words: in Trapped he memorably played a cop who often said as little as possible, and his taciturn nature only made him more compelling to watch.
In The Minister he plays a character that lives by words; it’s safe to say the only thing rural police chief Andri has in common with university professor turned maverick politician Benedikt Ríkhardsson is that they both live in Iceland. Ríkhardsson is an outsider when it comes to politics, someone who thinks things aren’t working and decides to step in and make some changes. His enthusiasm and drive, combined with his outsider status, soon see him propelled into the top job. Which is a problem, because he also has bipolar disorder, and he’s just about to go into a manic phase.
As a politician who’s come from outside the system with a mandate to shake things up, his increasingly unstable mental state poses a unique set of problems for those around him. He was voted in because people wanted out-of-the-box ideas from him: the more manic he gets, the bigger his ideas become, which in a way is exactly what he promised to deliver. As Iceland faces a series of problems both domestic and international, his responses increasingly unsettle his inner circle. But for those worried about his erratic behaviour becoming more prevalent, taking action isn’t so easy.
As a populist figurehead, those around him gain their legitimacy from him, not the system, which means getting rid of him isn’t a solution if they want to keep their jobs. So while some simply try to hide his illness, others decide to take advantage of it, using him to further their own aims. Meanwhile Ríkhardsson’s personal life is under increasing strain, and not just from his illness; he and his wife are expecting their first child, which is stressful enough without having to run a country.
If some of this sounds topical as we (hopefully) exit the era of Trump, it is – but it’s more a reflection of a constant tension in politics between the system and a public who thinks the system isn’t working for them. The last few years might make his mission to shake things up seem a recipe for chaos, but Ólafsson never plays Ríkhardsson as all good or bad; his desire for change is real, and he genuinely wants to reform a system that doesn’t want to be reformed.
The Minster is the perfect role for Ólafsson. His down-to-earth charm makes him completely plausible as an outsider politician who’s swept into power by an adoring public, while his growing mania and paranoia are chillingly realistic without ever erasing his likable side. The series is both a gripping political thriller and a slow-burn personal drama, but perhaps the most compelling aspect of it all is the way Ólafsson’s charm never leaves him even as his actions become disturbing. A charming politician can be a dangerous thing.
The Minister is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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