Svartir Englar (Black Angels)

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Despite being widely read in Scandinavian countries and also having a loyal following in Germany and the Netherlands, the literary output of Ævar Orn Josepsson is relatively unknown to the English speaking world. At present no English language translations of his work are currently available to buy from Amazon although the author’s commercial success and place within the literary Nordic Noir canon is referenced in Barry Forshaw’s fascinating text Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Similarly, whilst an active fan community exists in the UK for Nordic televisual output the knowledge of Icelandic content is currently not widespread amongst the fanbase. However, the recent announcement that Howard Gordon and Alex Cary, producers of Homeland, are developing a remake of Icelandic series Réttur for the NBC network might conceivably facilitate this active audience to seek out other examples of drama programming from the same country and it to be hoped that Arrow Films’ Nordic Noir imprint leases some of the many excellent and scandalously overlooked titles for DVD and Blu-ray release in the UK and Ireland.

Suitably convinced that Josepsson’s work was sufficiently well known within an Icelandic context state broadcaster Ríkisútvarpið RUV commissioned Sagafilm to produce a six part series entitled Svartir Englar that aired in the autumn of 2008 to viewing figures which are still listed as amongst the highest ever recorded for original programming.

The series is a profoundly cynical police procedural drama set in contemporary Reykjavik. Over six episodes and two primary narrative arcs the viewer is introduced to a team of four detectives and this approach enables the writers to present conflicting approaches to police methodology, changes to Icelandic society as a consequence of globalization and the internationalization of criminal activity as by-product of markets transcending geographical boundaries. The contrasting and complementing narrative arcs address a perceived erosion in Icelandic cultural certainties, From the domestic sphere to the political arena, moral certitude is presented as being either weak or non existent.

Images of contemporary social realism open the series and ground the central thesis that Icelandic society is increasingly becoming fractured, possibly even dysfunctional. A body falling from an apartment block in an apparent suicide is the event which which triggers the narrative’s initial investigation. Whilst conducting background checks into the deceased individual’s private and professional past the detectives uncover evidence to suspect that the cause of death may not have been suicide. A deeply disturbing narrative unfolds which encompasses money laundering and paedophilia whilst employing the four distinct styles of policing represented within the series to compare and contrast the ethical and investigative modes of practice employed by each of the protagonists.

An accidentally discarded earring links the two narrative arcs and whilst the second is tonally very different, at least initially, it builds to an equally dark premise; Iceland’s political and judicial system has been corrupted by external forces that will stop at nothing to cover its tracks.

This series has much to recommend, some very tight direction and an outstanding stunt in the opening episode. Well worth tracking down.

The authors of this adaptation are Sigurjón Kjartansson (Pressa) and Oskar Jonasson (Pressa, Reykjavik – Rotterdam). Jonasson is also the show’s director.

A DVD containing English subtitles is available to buy from:  http://nammi.is/svartir-englar-p-1048.html

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