Night Blind: Ragnar Jónasson Interviewed

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Acclaimed Icelandic author talks about his influences and being published in the UK.

One of 2015’s stand out literary débuts, in a short space of time Ragnar Jónasson has become one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Nordic Noir. The first instalment in his ‘Dark Iceland’ series Snow Blind was listed as one of the year’s best crime novels by The Independent and reached the top 10 on Amazon’s ebooks chart.

Jónasson’s second book Night Blind offers a return trip to the northern fishing town Siglufjordur for another supremely crafted whodunnit. This cold, dark, claustrophobic region is backdrop to a tangled web of secrets and lies.

Set five years after the events of Snow Blind, Jónasson’s hero Ari Thor is no longer a rookie cop. Now a seasoned offficer he has to battle extreme weather and uncover a secret from the past that may destroy the community.

Tense and thrilling this second ‘Dark Iceland’ novel trounces its predecessor. Orenda Books have announced that they will publish the final three volumes in this series.

At the launch for Night Blind hosted by the Embassy of Iceland in London Ragnar Jónasson discussed the journey to publication, the authors who have had the most profound effect on his writing, and how he feels about being one of Iceland’s most famous authors.

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This is your second book. You’ve got three more to come. How hard was it for you to get a UK publisher?

It took quite some time. As you can understand not many people read Icelandic so it has to be a leap of faith basically to buy a book that you cannot read but you can maybe read a summary of it but not the whole book. I had basically invested a lot of time going to events, crime festivals, in the UK and the US just out of interest and also to get the book noticed. There was probably a few years before I started actively to do that and it was picked up.

When preparing your first novel did you come up with the setting first or the plot first? Was it both at the same time?

I think it was a bit of both. The setting was obvious to me right from the start. It was process of ideas in a notebook coming together.

You were quite visible on the crime fiction circuit. You’re an Icelandic author but you’ve got a lot of UK influences. Readers may not be aware that you translated Agatha Christie’s novels into Icelandic.

Yes. From the age of 17. It was when I had nothing to do one summer so I went to the Icelandic publisher of Agatha Christie and I saw that it had been translated by different people every year so there was obviously no one in particular so I offered my services so he thanked me for coming by and I thought I would not hear from him but then he called me a couple of days later and said I could start and pick any book. That was a collaboration we had for fourteen, fifteen years. I managed to do that as a hobby while I was in school and then in law school and then working. I managed to find time to do one translation each year.

With Snow Blind one I noticed is that you are really good on story structure. I’m wondering did you subconsciously absorb that from translating Agatha Christie?

What I learnt from Agatha Christie is firstly I think just by translating so many books whether it was Agatha Christie or someone else you get a feel for the structure and length of a book. Suddenly you see that maybe it isn’t such a big undertaking after all to write a full novel. When I was starting to translate Agatha Christie I would probably never have thought that I had it in me to write a full novel because it’s slightly overwhelming when you haven’t done it. When you’ve done so many books and you see the structure you see that if you can translate it maybe you can write one so that’s what I did. What I hope to have learnt from her is, as you say she was marvellous on plotting, so that’s what I try to do with every book is have as strong a plot as I can and a twist at the end. That’s always my aim. The second point I think Agatha Christie was very good on and I hope to have learnt something from her was the setting. The setting was always very distinctive whether it was a train or a country manor or a boat or something. It was always a big part of the story. In my case it’s a village with the nature and everything. As the series goes on it’s a bigger portion of Iceland that is visited in the books. I always try to describe the setting and visit the setting. It’s always real places that you can look up and see.

Aside from Agatha Christie what other UK authors influenced you?

I would say PD James. She is one of my all time favourite crime writers. She had the best characterisation you can find in crime novels. I was lucky enough to meet her a couple of times and interview her. It was really a dream come true. She really is one of my favourites. I also read a lot of golden age crime. Not necessarily UK but even as well American like Ellery Queen, S.S. Van Dine. Slightly obscure authors now. Then more sort of contemporary UK fiction. I’m a fan of Andrew Taylor. Bleeding Heart Square, I thought that was really good. Then I read a lot of Nordic crime as well of course.

Readers may not be aware of the Sagas influence on not only your work but Icelandic culture in general.

I think there is a lot of influence because that really is our heritage. When other nations may have like great works of art and buildings… The oldest buildings in Iceland are fairly recent compared to other nations. The Sagas are basically what we have to be proud of from history. I think that’s why a lot of people buy books, read books, write books. Everyone feels a connection to books. I think it also impacts the writing style. We tend to write shorter sentences because that’s the way the icelandic Sagas were written. They are short sentences and to the point. Back in those days you had to be careful what your wrote because the material was expensive. It was maybe out of necessity that it was short. I think it sort of impacts the Icelandic writers and this makes a headache for Translators.

I think it’s fair to say that in the UK at least, alongside Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason you are one of the most visible Icelandic crime writers. You’ve been interviewed in high profile publications and appeared on the BBC World Service. How does it feel to be, in effect, Iceland’s cultural ambassador? Do you see yourself as that?

No, that’s the answer. I don’t. I sort of feel a slight obligation when I’m discussing my books with anyone whenever, wherever on Twitter or in person. I sort of turn the conversation into a conversation about Iceland unconsciously. There have been readers from the UK who have actually gone over to Iceland after reading Snow Blind. That’s really brilliant. That’s sort of a nice addition or a nice bonus to know that people actually just pick up a book and read it and feel inspired to visit the place. In that way if I can be in any way an ambassador for Iceland I’m happy to do that to encourage people to visit what they’ve just been reading about.

Many thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books and the Embassy 0f Iceland in London for making this interview possible.

Night Blind is available to order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nightblind-Dark-Iceland-Ragnar-Jonasson/dp/1910633119/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1453764424&sr=8-1&keywords=night+blind

nightblind-blog-tour

DVD Review: Callan – The Monochrome Years

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Grim and gritty espionage series.

The phenomenal success of the James Bond feature films tapped into Cold War paranoia and inspired a wave of spy films and TV series. Enticed by the allure of glamorous locations, ingenious gadgetry, and diabolical foreign agents being vanquished the public flocked to cinemas and switched on TVs to see an array of thrillers featuring secret agents. As the Bond movies drifted away from Fleming’s template and became increasingly camp its imitators started to pastiche the genre. By the mid to late 1960s the trend with films and series Our Man Flint, The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE was to throw out any pretence of seriously exploring East-West tensions and parody with a knowing wink.

Bucking the trend a play commissioned for anthology series Armchair Theatre eschewed ersatz glamour and rooted its cynical view of espionage in an all too realistic world of grimy bedsits and dilapidated office blocks. Inspired by Kim Philby and Guy Burgess defections  screenwriter James Mitchell wrote a one off play A Magnum for Schneider. Uncharacteristically gritty for the era it presented a morally ambiguous view of espionage and surveillance that predates Homeland and Spooks.

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Pleased with the public’s response to A Magnum for Schneider ITV swiftly commissioned a full series. Airing five months after the play aired ITV Callan eventually ran for four seasons. A benchmark moment in the history of spy series. Appetite for this groundbreaking programme was so strong a feature film remake of A Magnum for Schneider was released in cinemas two years after the series finished. A one off TV play broadcast in 1981 was originally intended to bring Callan’s story to a definite end but the character would be brought back for one final outing in the 2002 novel Bonfire Night.

Not broadcast since the original transmission, Network’s release contains all the surviving episodes from the first two seasons and A Magnum for Schneider.

Stark and unflinching in its depiction of how far intelligence services might be prepared to go in order to protect society the series frequently pushed the envelope in terms of levels of violence seen on screen. Despite its age many of themes explored remain all too relevant today.

Innovative in its use of story arcs decades before they became commonplace in television drama Callan threw down the gauntlet to future espionage series daring imitators to be as bold in stretching the genre’s parameters.

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Acting on stage and screen since the immediate post war period Edward Woodward had already built a solid reputation before being cast in A Magnum for Schneider. The success of the play and subsequent series transformed him from noted character actor into a household name. His portrayal of the executioner earnt him a BAFTA award.

Miles away from the comparatively lily-white James Bond and John Steed David Callan (Edward Woodward) is a retired operative recalled to active duty by a mysterious branch of intelligence services known only as The Section. Previously retired from service for fear that his ability as an executioner has been blunted by a tendency to ask too many questions about the assignment and frequent displays of emotional attachment he soon learns that discharge from duty can only ever be temporary. Full of loathing for himself, his employers, and the jobs he is made to do Callan is all too aware that refusing to accept a job will lead to another operative being assigned to assassinate him.

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A high point in the history of British TV Callan is a taut and intense thriller. Intelligent writing and nonpareil performances from Woodward and Russell Hunter as seedy petty burglar Lonely place this series in a league far  removed from any other crime series produced in the UK during the 1960s.

Truly exceptional, the surviving episodes of this arresting series demonstrate a willingness to innovate that is lost in modern TV production. The final traumatic episode of this collection demonstrates a boldness that remains unparalleled in spy series. Often copied but never equalled, Callan remains the definitive small screen hitman.
Callan – The Monochrome Years is available to order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Callan-Monochrome-Years-Edward-Woodward/dp/B002ZJ1JR2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1453730598&sr=8-1&keywords=callan

Event News: Crime Fiction At This Year’s Jewish Book Week

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CRIME FICTION AT THIS YEAR’S JEWISH BOOK WEEK

20-28 FEBRUARY 2016

 

● Mishka Ben-David ● Professor Saul David ● Jenni Frazer ● Jonathan Freedland ● Mark Lawson ● Adam LeBor ● Harri Nykänen ● Kristina Ohlsson ● Matt Rees ●

 

 Jewish Book Week (JBW) will be welcoming a number of critically acclaimed crime writers to its festival in London next month as part of its ten-day events programme.

Authors speaking include ex-Mossad officer Mishka Ben-David; two of Northern Europe’s most celebrated crime fiction writers – ex-OSCE Counter Terrorism Officer Kristina Ohlsson and former crime journalist Harri Nykänen, creator of Jewish-Finnish detective Ariel Kafka – with talks including everything from historical thrillers, to the real-life story of the 1976 hijacking of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris and the mission to save the hostages.

Authors participating in the 2016 programme include:

·         Sunday 21 February, 17:00-18:00.  Location: Kings Place

Award winning crime writer Matt Rees teamed up with the late Yehuda Avner, adviser to Israeli Prime Ministers, to write The Ambassadors, an historical thriller set in Nazi Germany.  What if Israel had been founded before the Holocaust?  Might its existence have changed the course of European history?   This event will be chaired by journalist Jenni Frazer.

·         Wednesday 24 February, 19:00-20.00.  Location: Kings Place

Bestselling author and award-winning journalist Jonathan Freedland will discuss The 3rd Woman, the first thriller to be published under his own name, in conversation with author and broadcaster Mark Lawson.  His book is a high-concept thriller set in a world in which the USA bows to the People’s Republic of China, corruption is rife and the government dictates what the ‘truth’ is.   Jonathan Freedland will explore the genesis of his novel about an individual’s quest for justice.

·         Friday 26 February, 13:00-14:00.  Location: JW3 (in association with Halban Publishers)

‘Spies: Fact and Fiction’Mishka Ben-David served in Mossad as a high-ranking officer. Now a full-time novelist, he writes tense thrillers about Mossad agents worldwide. Forbidden Love in St Petersburg is his second translated novel and he talks about his time in Mossad and how it informs his writing, in conversation with international bestselling author, Adam LeBor, whose novel The Reykjavik Assignment, features rogue ex-Mossad agent Yael Azoulay.

·         Sunday 28 February, 15:30-16:30.  Location: Kings Place

‘Nordic Noir’ – Two of Northern Europe’s most celebrated crime fiction writers, Finland’s Harri Nykänen, creator of Jewish detective Ariel Kafka, andKristina Ohlsson, one of Sweden’s foremost crime writers, introduce their latest page-turners to UK audiences with fellow crime writer Adam LeBor.

 Non-fiction events in the programme include ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ with historian and broadcaster Professor Saul David talking about his fast-paced account of the 1976 hijacking of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, and the daring, secret mission orchestrated by the Israeli government to save the hostages, which will take place at JW3 on 25 February.

 In addition to events focusing on crime fiction, JBW, London’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas, will feature topical debates, interviews, performance, debut writers, writers-in-translation and fringe events, designed to appeal to all ages, faiths and ethnicities,covering, amongst other areas: art and photography; biography & memoir; religion & society; science & technology; private passions; and war & conflict.

 Please see www.jewishbookweek.com to view the full festival programme and pricing information.

 Venue information:

Events will be held at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG; and at JW3, 341-351 Finchley Road, London NW3 6ET

Box office information:

Tickets can be purchased online by telephone or in person through:

·         The Jewish Book Week website at www.jewishbookweek.com

·         Kings Place Box Office, tel: 020 7520 1490, www.kingsplace.co.uk/jbw

·         JW3 Box Office, tel: 020 7433 8988, www.JW3.org.uk

DVD Review: Land and Sons

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1980 film is credited with signalling the Icelandic motion picture industry’s rebirth.

The establishment of the Icelandic Film Fund in 1978 represented an important step in developing a self sustaining film production culture. Previously, despite the presence of a domestic filmmaking community a lack of available funds and limited opportunities for exhibition restricted the number of Icelandic films produced. The early period of Icelandic cinema history included a notable documentary tradition and saw the release of several significant feature films including Between Mountain and Shore (1949), The Last Farm in the Valley (1950), and Girl Gogo (1962).

Prior to the setting up of the Icelandic Film Fund a lack of funding and limited export opportunities resulted in a lost decade during which no domestic films were produced.

Following the first Reykjavik Film Festival in 1978 the Icelandic Film Fund was set up with an initial production budget of 300,000 Kronur. Insufficient to fully subsidise the making of a motion picture, the available funds enabled producers and directors to commence pre-production while seeking additional sources of finance from investors. A significant proclamation of the government’s embracing of film’s importance, news of the fund’s establishment galvanized the domestic film industry. Initially committed to supporting three productions, the first to reach cinema screens was Ágúst Gudmundsson’s Land and Sons.

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Released in 1980 Land and Sons exceeded all expectations at the domestic box office. Seen by 110,000 people in a country with a total population of 230.000 it demonstrated that people were eager for home grown content and would pay to see it. To cover production costs ticket prices were roughly 250% higher than competing international films, The inflated cost of admission did not deter cinemagoers enthusiasm for a domestically produced film that addressed national concerns.

Recognised today as the first sign that an Icelandic Film Spring was about to occur, Land and Sons can also lay claim to birthing modern Icelandic film culture.

An early example of the Icelandic heritage film, it documented the loss of rural traditions, and fragmenting of communities. Adapted from Indriði G. Þorsteinsson’s novel, Land and Sons is set in a remote farming community in the north of Iceland during the 1930s. A transitional moment in Icelandic history, still under colonial rule the era of mass migration to Reykjavik was beginning.

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In the years leading up to World War Two the majority of Icelanders lived on farms and smallholdings, within a generation Reykjavik’s population would double.

Alienated and restless Einar (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) yearns to escape from a lifetime of agricultural labour. His father Olaf has tended the land since he inherited it from Einar’s grandfather. A prominent member of the local community Olaf is wedded to a specific lifestyle and is immune to the winds of change. Already heavily indebted to the local cooperative his financial situation worsens when a disease ravages the sheep herd. Bound together by blood and tradition father and son struggle to battle against a worsening financial situation and an unforgiving environment. The lure of city living proves too great for Einar in the period immediately after Olaf’s death .Unaware that forces are brewing in Europe that will plunge the world into global conflict within two years Einar contemplates selling his birthright and ending customs that have been handed down through several generations.

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Melancholic and fatalistic, Land and Sons‘ treatment of history and the elevation of environment to supporting character recalls the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and John Ford. A cross-generational study of conflicting ambitions, that pays homage to the New German Cinema with cine-literate references to classic Westerns (Shane and The Searchers).

An elegy to a way of life now vanished. Ágúst Gudmundsson’s film invites the viewer to consider if the embracing of urbanization has eroded specific characteristics of Icelandic national identity.

Deserving of its place in film history, Land and Sons is the foundation upon which the modern Icelandic film industry was built.

A subtitled DVD is available to order from nammi.is:

http://nammi.is/land-og-synir-dvd-p-2985.html

Book Review: Christmas is Coming by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (Trans by Hallberg Hallmundsson)

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Something festive this way comes: classic collection of verse reintroduced figures from Icelandic folklore.

In the early 1930s Icelandic literature was undergoing a golden age. Having gained independence in 1918 the country was experiencing an emboldened sense of self identity which was expressed throughout the arts. An age of introspection and exploration that saw the country’s writers and artists reinterpret Icelandic heritage from a nationalistic perspective.

Possibly influenced by adult literature’s coming of age, children’s fiction began to exhibit greater sophistication and spoke to a nation that although primarily dependent upon agriculture and fisheries for its sustainability was taking tentative steps towards urbanisation and consumerism.

Into this age of transition Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s seminal seasonal text Christmas is Coming was published. First issued in 1932 the text reintroduced Icelandic society to figures from pre-Christian Nordic Yuletide folklore albeit in a slightly sanitised form more palatable to early twentieth century readers.

An alternative to Father Christmas. According to Icelandic folklore children’s homes are visited by elves over a number of nights leading up to the Yuletide festival. Until the publication of Christmas is Coming the precise number of elves and individual characteristics varied regionally. Malign and occasionally murderous figures traditionally used to scare children into behaving were transformed by Jóhannes úr Kötlum into mischievous elves. Fixing the number of Yule Lads at thirteen each was given a distinct personality.

In modern Icelandic society children are told that Yule Lads will visit homes leaving gifts or rotting potatoes depending on their behaviour. Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s verse was written at a time when agriculture was the dominant industry and in his poem the elves play a series of pranks upon farmers homes.

This seasonal bestseller remains in print and is now available in English. The collection also includes The Ballad of Grýla the tale of an ogre who feasts on badly behaved children and The Christmas Cat a dark account of a terrifying feline who prowls around Iceland looking for children wearing old clothes because she is unable to eat infants that are wearing new garments.

Providing an invaluable glimpse at the birth of modern Icelandic festive traditions Christmas is Coming is a macabre and impish collection.

Christmas is Coming is available to order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Christmas-Coming-original-verse-children-ebook/dp/B018WORBBG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1449887606&sr=8-1&keywords=J%C3%B3hannes+%C3%BAr+K%C3%B6tlum

DVD Review: River

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Stellan Skarsgard delivers a career defining performance in ambitious crime drama.

Nordic Noir comes to the East End of London in the form of Swedish film star Stellan Skarsgard. Temporarily leaving behind Hollywood soundstages for a UK TV series Skarsgard plays the eponymous River, a police detective who hears voices.

Multi-layered and emotionally potent, River is an audacious series from BAFTA Award winning screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady). Updating the detective drama Morgan has created a gritty and lyrical show that is one of the strongest dramas to debut in 2015.

A complex examination of the human psyche’s frailties, Morgan’s screenplay explores the motivations behind murder with a degree of empathy. Possibly influenced by Nordic Noir’, River focuses on criminality’s collateral damage with a strong emphasis on grief’s corrosive effects.

The latest in a long line of troubled TV police officers, River is suffering from survivor’s guilt following the death of his partner. Since childhood he has heard what he believes to be voices from beyond the grave. Convinced his recently deceased partner (Nicola Walker) is communicating with him River’s grief endures.

River’s erratic behaviour is viewed with suspicion and concern by senior officers Police Superintendent Marcus McDonald (Owen Teale) and DCI Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville). Ordered to attend a series of therapy sessions with the police psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich) he must prove to be fit enough to remain on active duty.

Skarsgard’s masterful performance conveys the pain of a man haunted by guilt. A BAFTA worthy portrayal of isolation, anguish, and suppressed rage.

More than an updated Randall and Hopkirk or a The Sixth Sense imitation, River is a sharply written six-part drama. Virtually faultless, the series makes a brave attempt to create a distinct identity and not be seen to swim in Broadchurch‘s slipstream.

A series rich with an abundance of excellent performances, supreme writing, and filmic cinematography. Undeniably one of the most significant British dramas to air this year.

River is available to order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/River-DVD-Stellan-Skarsg%C3%A5rd/dp/B014UZTQLY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1448876626&sr=8-1&keywords=river

http://www.amazon.co.uk/River-Blu-Ray-Stellan-Skarsg%C3%A5rd/dp/B0171S3HR6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1448876626&sr=8-2&keywords=river

DVD Review: 101 Reykjavik

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Offbeat Icelandic slacker comedy.

One of Iceland’s most prolific directors, Baltasar Kormákur has helmed a number of films that have been commercially successful both at home and abroad. Best known internationally for Contraband, 2 Guns, and Everest his oeuvre also includes the highly regarded Icelandic films Jar City and The Deep. A career as an actor on stage and screen preceded his move behind the camera. Kormákur continues to act and has appeared in several of his own feature films.

For his directorial debut Kormákur adapted Hallgrimur Helgason’s breakthrough novel. This idiosyncratic and bleakly comedic snapshot of pre financial crash hedonistic youth pays homage to Pedro Almodovar’s early films and effortlessly merges art house and mainstream cinema in a film which presents an ironic portrait of a generation.

Taking its name from the district where its characters live 101 Reykjavik presents a contemporary Icelandic Saga as a highly accentuated comedy of errors. Male repression and extended infantalism is contrasted with examples of female dynamism and determination as mother and son compete for the affections of a Spanish lover. Emotionally stunted Hlynur (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) is in his early thirties living with his mother determined to live on welfare payments until he reaches pensionable age.

Insulated from the consequences of his actions by a laid back mother, he is unknowingly imprisoned by self-imposed lack of curiosity about the world beyond his district. Determinately disassociated from adult life, Hlynur spends his days gazing at internet pornography and evenings consuming a diet of soft drugs and alcohol.

Hilmir Snaer Gudnason delivers a performance pitched with an equal balance of pathos, cynicism, and vulnerability. Never straying into the realms of parody or sentimentality he conveys a complex myriad of emotions and traces an increasingly poignant journey as Hlynur’s certainties are eroded forcing the anti-hero to chose between a descent into inner turmoil or an embracing of personal responsibility.

Kormákur’s insightful and non-judgemental screenplay is brought to life by a succession of humane and honest performances. Explicitly acknowledging Almodovar’s influence Kormákur cast Victoria Abril (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) as the Spanish flamenco instructor who sleeps with Hlynur and then reveals herself as his mother’s lesbian lover.

Released at a time when Iceland was becoming fashionable as a travel destination, Kormákur’s film’s cultural cachet was enhanced by a knowing score from Blur’s Damon Albarn and The Sugarcubes’ Einar Benediktsson.

Unsentimental and wry, 101 Reykjavik is a dark and eccentric character study. Hlynur’s internal monologue is complemented by crisp, clear and unadorned cinematography which captures the stark beauty of an Icelandic winter.

A strong debut from Baltasar Kormákur and an ideal stepping on point for an exploration into Icelandic cinema’s rich history.

101 Reykjavik is available to order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/101-Reykjavik-Hilmir-Sn%C3%A6r-Gu%C3%B0nason/dp/B00005NCZA/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1448850127&sr=1-1&keywords=101+reykjavik