Digging deep underground on its own is creepy enough. It’s dark, it’s dank, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to find. But digging deep underground to create the world’s biggest nuclear waste dump? No wonder project manager Lars Ruud (Aksel Hennie) is sweating. He’s responsible for a massive hole under a northern Swedish mining town that’s besieged by protestors, the project’s been delayed and nobody’s getting paid until they start storing nuclear waste, and having his co-workers trying to throw him a birthday party isn’t helping either.
After all that, an underground explosion is the last thing he needs. Tensions were already running high even before a security guard injured an intruder and put everyone on edge. Now three people are dead – though in some good news, his friend and co-worker Helen (Vera Vitali) is only injured – but the cause remains a mystery. Turns out that’s far from the only mystery he’s about to face; the explosion uncovered a strangely smooth white wall embedded in bedrock that’s a billion years old. There’s no possible way it should be there and yet, there it is…
While White Wall is set in a fictional Swedish mining town, the series was shot almost entirely on location in Finland. That includes the underground scenes, which were filmed in the disused Pyhäsalmi mine almost 700 metres down. Filming there had its own challenges: just travelling that far underground took half an hour, leaving the cast and crew in a location that was pitch dark, damp and warm. A separate safe room was built underground for the team around a fissure where fresh air seeped in, and its re-enforced concrete roof meant it was the only place they were allowed to be without wearing a helmet and goggles.
All this gives the underground scenes an eerie authenticity, a constant low-level tension that underlies Lars’ struggle to figure out what’s going on. Investigating the mystery of the wall rapidly moves to the top of Lars’ to-do list, but that doesn’t mean his worries back on the surface have gone anywhere. For one thing, who set off the explosion in the first place? And while a possibly alien artefact might have astounding ramifications for life on this planet, it doesn’t pay the bills – and shutting things down only to discover late that it’s, say, a freak of geology or a misplaced chunk of sewage pipe is the kind of blunder that can cost a man his job.
The best drama comes when a character is forced to choose between competing desires. Lars wants to know what’s going on with this mysterious wall; he also wants to keep his job, which definitely doesn’t involve letting people know about a weird obstruction that would bring everything to a halt. His solution? Cover things up and act like everything’s proceeding normally while he conducts a covert investigation.
That’d be a good plan if he didn’t have a bunch of environmental activists on the surface nosing around. And if he wasn’t finding it increasingly difficult to keep his affair with Helen a secret. And if it didn’t seem increasingly obvious that exposure to the wall is having a bizarre effect on people’s behaviour, making them act in strange, unsettling ways.
The result is a slow-burn drama where the tension is constantly ratcheting up in ways you might not expect. The problems just keep adding up, and while they’re minor ones at first, none of them ever quite seem to go away. There’s plenty of big questions around the White Wall – after all, if it really is of alien origin then everything we understand about life changes – but this is a series that knows you build tension by starting small.
At the heart of it all is Lars, a man struggling with a range of all too human problems even as he becomes increasingly obsessed with the vast alien mystery he’s uncovered. He’s under pressure from all sides, with no sign of it ever letting up – though to be fair, some of that is clearly his own fault. Is it really a good idea to have your daughter come stay with you when you’re conducting a secret affair and trying to hide an alien artefact from the world?
And meanwhile, almost a kilometre underground, a strangely smooth white wall waits. It’s a featureless mystery that poses an even greater question: what could possibly be behind it?
White Wall is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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