• ‘Before We Die’ (UK) (SBS)Source: SBS
The UK version of ‘Before We Die’ premieres on Wednesday 3 November at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.
Cat Woods

1 Nov 2021 - 9:50 AM  UPDATED 1 Nov 2021 - 9:50 AM

As a fan of the original Swedish series Before We Die (Innan vi dör) (now streaming at SBS On Demand), an English version was going to be a tough sell. But, like the American version of The Bridge, the characters and their relationship dynamics are different enough that both series can be seen as new stories, or watched with no prior experience of the other.   

Fans may recall Lesley Sharp from her starring role in Scott & Bailey, in which her crime fighting professional role was often in conflict with her role as a wife, mother and daughter. She fully embodies the duelling roles of mother and dedicated detective Hannah Laing in the UK adaptation of Before We Die. As Laing, she is seemingly exhausted and almost numb to the mundanity of crime and violence in her city of Bristol. That is, until her lover and colleague, Sean, vanishes without explanation and her estranged son, Christian, emerges as the connection between Sean’s disappearance and an Eastern European drug cartel.

The UK series was filmed around port city Bristol’s ageing grandeur, including Stokes Croft, Clifton, Brandon Hill Park, Clarence Road and York Road, all areas with their own personality; Stokes Croft with its clubs and graffitied walls, Clifton with its rows of pastel-hued Georgian houses, the suspension bridge and the nouveau riche feel. It is bleak though, and not a world apart from the greyness of the Stockholm depicted in the original Before We Die. The landscape, still, is a character and Bristol feels like a suitably malevolent place – conveniently close to the port – for crime to thrive.

When Danish-Swedish series The Bridge was adapted into an American version in 2013, I was sceptical, like many fans of the original Nordic series. Rather than try to supplant American detectives into an icy, grey landscape, simply speaking the original dialogue in English, the series took a creative attitude.

Sonya and Marco were the El Paso detective and Chihuahua State police detective respectively, brought together by a murder on the bridge between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Though Sonya experiences an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder, and the two detectives struggle to understand the other’s unconventional approach to investigations, as here, their relationship and the plotline are dynamic and different enough to the original series to exist apart from it and to be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the other series.

Before We Die, in transplanting the original series into the UK, hasn’t taken the same creative adventurousness, to its detriment. But, this is a criticism from a fan of the original series who craved a new take on the compelling family drama and investigative procedural plotlines. Superficially, the story is very much the same: the characters share the same names as the original series, and the venues in which action takes place are similar to the original. For those who were glued to the original series, this one can still be enjoyed, though.

Sharp, for one, is a wonderful Hannah – frayed at the edges, guilty and trying to disguise it with bravado, and attempting to be a mother and a battle-wearied crime fighter all at once. The English series, though it begins a little clunkily with dialogue, is easier to follow than the original. Both the Swedish and British series are less complicated than other Nordic crime series, such as The Killing or Follow The Money.

In the end, the UK Before We Die is ‘same, same, but different’. The fundamental elements that made the original Swedish series so compelling are still here: Hannah, Christian, the crime cartel, the false front for business, the complicated relationship between a suburban drug dealer, his mother and the lethal gang he has inadvertently become an employee of. For viewers who know all this, seeing the story unfurl in the faded beauty of Bristol with a masterful Lesley Sharp as Hannah is worth tuning in for. And for viewers who missed the original series, there is nothing lost in translation that would prevent you fully immersing yourself in this six-part drama.

Both series revolve around characters with demons to face, the ones they face alone and the ones they share with each other. The language of grief, loss, parent-and-child dynamics, and love in all its complexity and confusion, are equally compelling in both Swedish and English, Stockholm and Bristol.

Before We Die premieres exclusively in Australia at 9.30pm, Wednesday 3 November on SBS and SBS On Demand. Episodes air weekly.

Seasons 1 and 2 of the original Swedish Before We Die are now streaming at SBS On Demand.

‘Before We Die’ season 2 is here, and it’s just as gripping as ever
Crime series ‘Before We Die’, now at SBS On Demand, continues the strong tradition of high-quality Swedish television.
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