Gripping, bleak yet hopeful

This is my review of Trapped [DVD].

This Icelandic contribution to Scandi Noir proved for me to be the most successful so far. The absorbing plot is essentially more plausible and realistic than is often the case, involving a slowly folding almost Shakespearean tragedy on the stage set of the remote coastal town of Seyðisfjörður, where some of the inhabitants are driven to crime through a complex brew of motives: panic induced by the shock of Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008, simple greed, or a gut desire for revenge. In the gradual revelation of the facts, all the main characters were developed as real people with flaws, conflicting emotions but often redeeming features at unexpected moments. The drama has the power to arouse our sympathy, if only rarely, for less appealing characters, even villains, along with flashes of impatience over, say, Andri’s self-centred ex-wife. Events unfold against the backdrop of the astonishing quantities of snow, burying cars and walls almost up to roof level, the bleak beauty of the white mountain slopes rising abruptly up from the the icy waters of the bay, the danger of an avalanche engulfing the town, which can be diverted by a dynamite explosion, itself a risky venture.

Andri Olafssun, the Reykjavik detective who has been banished to Seyðisfjörður for some misdeameanour, comes across at first as a shambling oaf, until the power and magnetism of the actor rapidly win us over. When blizzards cut the town off from the rest of civilisation, preventing the arrival of a team from the capital headed by Andri’s rival Trausti, he is forced to press ahead with investigations of the discovery of a mutilated torso, apparently connected with the arrival of a Danish ferry. This is way beyond the experience of Andri’s two junior colleagues who represent the woefully inadequate manpower at his disposal in a community in which serious crime has been a rare event. Both the earnest, quietly ambitious Hinrika and more impulsive Ásgeir, addicted to chess on the office computer after years of inaction, rise to the challenge of the sudden wave of crises. At the same time he has to deal with the stressful situation about which his parents-in-law have felt unable to forewarn him: the arrival of his ex-wife with new boyfriend, with plans to take his two young daughters back to Reyjkavik with them.

A further complication is the controversial plan for the leaders of the town to acquire land for a possible deal with the Chinese to develop Seyðisfjörður as a port, although it is unclear how, if at all, this has any bearing on the crime.

The drama combines action and suspense with a focus on showing people’s reactions to a wide range of emotions: fear, anger, regret or grief. Both the dialogue, even with sub-titles, and the acting are excellent. Often trapped in both a physical and mental sense, the characters seem like real people, not chosen for their good looks, often with crooked teeth and sagging skins, plus thick baggy jumpers to keep out the almost palpable cold. A sense of the thoughtfulness, stoicism and integrity of the Icelandic character (however illusory it may be) comes through

A few loose ends leave scope for a series to which I look forward, although doubting whether such a well-constructed and coherent drama can be created again. This drama passes the acid test of not leaving one feeling cheated at the end. My sole reservation is over Andri’s habit of running round in freezing weather with his jacket unzipped.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Loving too much

This is my review of The Disappearance [DVD].

The Morels seem like an ideal family: handsome father Julien Morel runs a Lyon restaurant with his widowed brother and good-looking son, his athletic wife combines a career with caring for the sparky eight-year-old Zoé, and is on good terms with her irresistibly beautiful elder daughter Léa, about to celebrate her seventeenth birthday. All this proves too good to be true, when following Léa’s disappearance after a festival, police investigations combined with Julien’s personal sleuthing reveal that her life was in fact a web of deceit and guilty secrets. Yet, she is not alone in this since, as Detective Molina is driven to exclaim in despair, is anyone in her family telling the truth?

Our interest is held through eight suspenseful episodes, admittedly involving what may be an excessive number of false trails and red herrings. What sets this series apart is its strength as an entertaining psychological drama, with the detailed portrayal of a family in meltdown under the pressure of fear, mistrust, grief and forgiveness – of knowing when to tell the truth rather than lie to protect others, and dealing with the consequences of past actions. The dynamics of the police team is also well-covered, centred on the driven, outwardly brusque but in fact compassionate Molina, who with a vulnerable fifteen-year-old daughter of his own, cannot help identifying with Julien despite his often damaging interference born of desperation.

The drama is gilded with alluring vistas of the sun-drenched, golden classical houses lining the river embankments at Lyon, intriguing shots of steep stone steps leading down to the water, and the leafy shores of the lake in the Tête-d’Or Park where the daytime beauty may mask more sinister nocturnal events.

After so much sustained tension and engagement with the shifting emotions of the main characters, perhaps the denouement inevitably leaves a sense of anticlimax. Although poignant rather than the all-too-often implausibly violent resolution, it was marred for me by a couple of ploys, one overused and the other unconvincing, which were avoidable.

Based, I believe, on a Spanish drama, “Disappeared” reminds me of a series of “The Killing” which explores in depth a couple’s response to the death of a child. If the producers are trying to imitate the success of Scandi-noir, they have done a good job.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned

This is my review of Doctor Foster Series 1 [DVD] [2015].

Doctor Gemma Foster has a successful career as senior partner in a general practice, a handsome and seemingly loving husband Simon, appealing son and stylish house with friendly neighbours opposite. When she discovers a long blonde hair on her husband’s clothing, her suspicions seem somewhat easily aroused, and she reveals her concerns rather too readily for a confident, professional woman. Yet, as becomes clear, she is insecure beneath the surface, and prone to make enemies with her driven personality and an intensity which often leads her to “step over the mark”, manipulating others and using dubious means to achieve justifiable ends.

In this gripping, twisty and unpredictable tale one’s sympathies should be with Gemma as she tries to deal with a husband who will not admit to his infidelity and friends who continually prove duplicitous, but her increasingly extreme behaviour, although understandable, often seems to make things worse.

Some of the scenes in the surgery may not be very realistic, but can be accepted as “dramatic licence”. I thought the plot was in danger of losing its way and slipping into mere soap in the middle, but it all comes together in a dramatic final part, in particular a powerful dinner party scene.

This is an above-average drama, not merely owing to the excellent acting, well-developed characters and intriguing plot, but because it is thought-provoking over the sad and thorny issue of infidelity.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars