Arrow Films’ Nordic Noir imprint powers up its very own time machine and transports us to the tail end of the eighteenth century with an audacious series that is equal parts criminal investigation, romance, political drama, and conspiracy thriller set against a background of immense social and constitutional transformation. The Age of Enlightenment was a time in which the world we know was being born. Reason battled with religion for the hearts and minds of the age. Europe may have been steeped in blood from wars and revolutions, its people tired of seeing its young men being needlessly slaughtered in military campaigns but by 1790 the continent was plunged into a conflict that had to be waged. The stakes were very high, liberation from the dark ages and the creation of a new society in which reason and science prevailed. Across the continent aftershocks from the French Revolution were still being felt. Ruling elites were fearful of contagion and rebels plotted in darkened corners to overthrow the existing regimes and replace them with more egalitarian and democratically accountable models.
Created by Johan Mardell ( former head of Fiction at SVT and Head of Production at Svensk Filmindustri) and Jonas Frykberg (The Girl who Played with Fire), Anno 1790 was an ambitious undertaking from Pampas Production. Mardell’s initial aim was to create a series unlike anything else on Swedish television. By marrying the crime thriller with a historical drama Mardell and Frykberg soon realized that the dramatic possibilities afforded by not being able to rely upon modern technology to solve a plot point opened up a panoply of possible storylines. With location filming undertaken in Stockholm’s historic quarters matched alongside some highly detailed sets constructed inside an abandoned hangar in Kumla, Anno 1790 is one of the most lavishly budgeted shows to have been commissioned by Swedish broadcaster SVT. Unflinching in its recreation of life in the 1800s, the series valiantly elects not to over sentimentalize the past, instead demonstrating the harshness of life for ordinary citizens and explores the extent to which institutionally sanctioned inequalities may breed discontent.
The Russo-Swedish war is in its final stages. Our hero, Johan Gustav Dåådh (Peter Eggers) is tending the wounds of injured military personnel. Emotionally torn between the need to alleviate suffering and finding a way to end this senseless conflict Dåådh is a Republican with an interest in science and a strong belief in French Revolution’s ideals. Openly expressing such views within a year of the French revolution’s opening salvo was very dangerous. Across Europe, governments feared replication and would meter out severe forms of torture to those suspected of fermenting sedition. Seeking aid as he tries to offer medical assistance to the battleground’s weak, weary, and wounded Dåådh enlists the services of borderline alcoholic, and fervent Christian, Simon Freund (Joel Spira). This pairing of rationalist and spiritual believer provides a dramatically satisfying way to illustrate the key debate of the Enlightenment era, science versus religion, in a form that is consistent with what we know of this period from surviving historical texts. Suffering a gunshot wound, Freund fears that his life may be about to end and attempts to make the atheist physician swear a religious oath he will return the corpse to the family estate. Freund’s wound is not fatal and despite not having vocalized a vow Dåådh escorts him back home. As tutor to the children of Carl Fredrik Wahlstedt (Johan Hson Kjellgren), the commissioner of Stockholm’s constabulary Freund is a gateway to a realm of society which, by its very existence, is diametrically opposed to Dåådh’s ideological beliefs.
The age of the resurrectionists was not quite over in 1790. Knowledge of human anatomy was an emerging field and in private conversation with a city official Dåådh admits that having delivered Freund he is eager to bid farewell so he can return to an academy in order to further his knowledge, unaware that he will soon have ample opportunity to do so as he is forced to perform an autopsy on a local dignitary found dead in a prostitute’s boudoir. By offering assistance in the murder investigation Dåådh’s is instantly placed in opposition against the Republican sympathizers with whom he previously consorted. The offer of permanent employment enables Dåådh to slowly transform the system from within ensuring that henceforth justice is to be administered in a merciful form. Any strides he may make in transforming the judicial process are viewed with deep suspicion by his former allies. Balancing on a double-edged sword, Dåådh must not attract attention from those in the political arena who may regard his personal beliefs to be treasonous. Struggling to deny his love for Magdelena Wahlstedt (Linda Zilliacus), the wife of the police chief constable, Dåådh lives with an ever-present fear that discovery would permanently exclude him from her company and also result in his post being filled by a competitor with less socially progressive views on how to police the city.
As a historical costume drama comparisons will inevitably be made with the feature film A Royal Affair and miraculously Anno 1790 manages to equal the movie’s aesthetics on a considerably lower TV budget. Some intriguing stylistic choices have been made by the art director, specifically in the use of colour, demonstrating how much in accord the creative team was in terms of communicating the creator’s collective vision and understanding the script’s subtextual material. Anno 1790 is a superlative production, containing some of the most intriguing screen moments to have occurred since the explosion of interest in Nordic films and TV. It transposes the tropes of the modern police procedural onto a historical drama and in doing so teasingly invites the viewer to comment upon how little our society may have changed despite whatever progress we may think has occurred in the ensuing centuries. Offering a glimpse into the early development of pathology as an investigative tool alongside the foundations of modern Swedish parliamentary democracy, Anno 1790 is an undiscovered classic awaiting its moment in the spotlight. A benchmark example of Nordic Noir, the series can be compared favourably to A Royal Affair, The Killing, and Borgen. Possibly the finest series you’ve never seen it should find a welcome home amongst any Scandi fan’s DVD library,