DVD Review: The Night Shift

Currently enjoying levels of popularity and visibility that may have seem impossible a few years ago, European TV drama has transformed from niche programming into a high profile regular fixture of BBC Four’s schedule. After a two decade absence from our screens fans can now tune in each week to new series from across the continent. What may initially have started as a broadcasting experiment has been met with critical praise and an ever growing fanbase which is actively celebrating its appreciation on social media and at events such as the recent Nordicana festival. With Channel 4 and Sky Arts now following the BBC’s example by acquiring subtitled content and giving it a hitherto undreamed of promotional push alongside a steady stream of releases from Arrow Films, aficionados are all too aware they are enjoying a golden age which would not have been feasible a few years earlier.

Framed within its public service remit, BBC Four’s early forays into bringing subtitled drama back to our screens placed emphasis on cultural exchange and enlightenment. As part of a season of programming entitled Wonders of Iceland the BBC made broadcasting history by being the first UK network to screen an Icelandic comedy series.

First shown on the commercially owned station Stöð 2 in 2007, The Night Shift was an instant success. With ratings amongst the season’s highest, the show’s accomplishments were recognized by The Icelandic Film and Television Academy at that year’s ceremony with awards for ‘Best Television Show’ and ‘Most Popular Television Show.’ Despite being relatively unknown in the UK, such was the appetite in its country of origin for further instalments two sequel series (The Day Shift, The Prison Shift) and a theatrically released feature film spin-off (Bjarnfreðarson) were produced.

A petrol station in the middle of a long winter might initially seem to be an unlikely place to stage a black comedy which on the surface appears to be a synthesis of The Office and Fawlty Towers but on deeper inspection this delightfully idiosyncratic and perfectly formed programme reveals high culture credentials through its channelling of the fatalism prevalent throughout the Icelandic sagas. Veering between moments of grotesque absurdity, tenderness, and tragedy, often within the space of a single scene, The Night Shift revolves around an isolated outpost staffed by a crew of three emotionally stunted employees. An eccentric series shot through with pathos alongside frenzied bouts of insanity, it is blessed by layered scripts replete with a focus on personal enslavement, consequences, the value of friendship, and a considered array of social issues including feminism, politics, modern celebrity culture, and Nigerian e-mail scams. Equal parts character study, satire, civic commentary, the programme is decidedly politically incorrect and confrontational yet manages to never be anything less than magnificent.

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Currently in the twilight period of his tenure as mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr has recently been generating column inches with the news that American publisher Melville House has acquired the rights to his political memoir and will issuing it later this year. Titled Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, the book will lift the lid on the formation of the Best Party, its ideals and how they may be transposed onto foreign legislative frameworks. Satirizing Icelandic democratic process Gnarr’s unwittingly galvanized an anti-establishment movement seeking to bash the ruling elite for their role in the 2008 financial crisis. A Nordic equivalent of The Monster Raving Loony Party with an inspired list of pledges (and a disclaimer reminding voters they would not be honoured) was forced to redraft its policies into something more practicable after winning six seats on the Reykjavík city council in the 2010 elections.

Before becoming an elected official. Gnarr had a fruitful career as a stand-up comedian and was a regular feature on Icelandic radio and TV. His prior media achievements were eclipsed by the public’s response to his signature role, Georg Bjarnfreðarson.

Proudly possessing degrees in Psychology, Sociology, Pedagogy, Political Science, and Educational Studies Georg is undoubtedly overqualified for the position of shift supervisor. One of the most complex tragi-comedic characters to hit the small screen in the last decade, an amalgam of Basil Fawlty, David Brent and Joseph Stalin, with a visage clearly inspired by Vladimir Lenin. Running the petrol station as a totalitarian regime he makes token concessions, under duress, to popular democracy and then after being highly critical of the process rigs the results. A critique in dramatic form of uncompromising left wing ideologues, nuanced writing and a knowing performance reveal a pathetic figure hiding behind the bluster who maintains a wrench like grip on the workplace whilst being powerless when away from the forecourt. Frequently inviting loathing and sympathy, despite his oft mentioned academic achievements he is rarely able to strike an accord with his colleagues and relies on threats of sanctions (fines or an onerous chore) and a barrage of humiliating comments expressed in the most inappropriate moments.

Long-standing co-worker Ólafur Ragnar (Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon) has been employed at the petrol station for longer than any of his colleagues and feels undervalued. A reflection of Georg, they both live at home with family members and aspire to make an impact on society. Whereas his boss wants to remould Iceland to comply with a mishmash of ideas taken from Sweden’s social democratic model and Soviet era Russia, Ólafur has a hankering for fame and its attendant trappings. Manager of the band Solin, he is unshaken in his conviction that the big time is just around the corner. Stretched to breaking point by having to administer the band’s affairs whilst on duty at the forecourt he frequently fails at both tasks. A man-child, mid thirties with the mental age of a teenager. Incapable of overseeing his own affairs, credit blacklisted and not earning enough to fund the lifestyle to which he aspires his sister has had the misfortune to house him, never really expecting to receive the oft promised rent payments. His sibling lives in perpetual fear of finding out their grandmother stricken by Alzheimer’s disease has been coerced into guaranteed a loan or finance for a car.

The offscreen death of Gudjon creates a vacancy at the petrol station and this is filled by Daniel Sævarsson (Jörundur Ragnarsson). Nervy and unsure of himself, recoiling from the ramifications of leaving medical school, he has sought solace in regular paid employment whilst undergoing an existential crisis. Escaping from the lifestyle imposed by his parents, working at the petrol station allows him to take control of his personal destiny for the first time. The radical restructuring of Daniel’s life is a covert operation, his family and girlfriend are convinced he is still enrolled at the university and the discovery of the deceit has far reaching consequences. Breaking away from one form of tyranny he is now sheltering within a workplace cum despotic regime. Days are filled with degradation, discussions of holiday funds, security role play, supervision of Georg’s son Flemming Geir (Arnar Freyr Karlsson), and instructions on correct floor cleaning procedure. Salvation may be be found at a nearby all night convenience store where an assistant, Ylfa (Sara Margrét Nordahl) offers the possibility of a relationship based on mutual respect.

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Screened nightly in two episode blocks by BBC Four, The Night Shift‘s viewing figures were respectable and fans assumed that the station would pick up the sequel series. Sadly, this attempt to broaden the network’s schedule seems to have been a dead end rather than a concerted effort to diversify its content. Firmly committed to screening drama throughout 2014, it highly unlikely at this stage the powers that be will reverse their decision and give us further glimpses of Nordic comedy.

Fondly remembered by those who caught it, a worldly script coupled with knowing faux cinema verite direction from Ragnar Bragason and mature performances from the series regulars and guest cast, exemplifying joy and despair combine to create a highly original show deserving of greater exposure.

A DVD with English subtitles can be ordered from Shop Icelandic:

Næturvaktin – The Night Shift (DVD)

Nordicana 2014 (Part One)

An excellent review of Nordicana from the University of Stirling’s wonderful Nordic Noir group.

Nordic Noir

DSC_0116There are whole industries dedicated to the production of celebrity but Joe Public has the capacity to express his own desires too. He may choose to ignore that particular mode of consumption and follow a different one – celebrity ‘from below.’ It was easy to see a big difference between the first Nordicana event and this one – the main thing being that the celebrity status of those invited to attend, particularly the actors, had grown. There was a mixing at this event of fans coming ‘from below’ and others attending the event coming at it from a different direction.

Fans were an integral part of the event, tweeting, facebooking and blogging. Fans collaborated with the public in the production and perception of Nordicana’s purpose. Not everyone saw the second Nordicana event in the same way last weekend. It wasn’t a massive business based event such as the Scandi Show…

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Nordicana 2014

An audacious experiment, the first Nordicana was rapturously received by an audience which never expected to have the opportunity to see in person the shining lights of Scandinavian drama. Despite being an undoubted success few could have predicted a second event would be staged within months, let alone one that boldly expanded its canvas offering a veritable smorgasbord of Nordic screen talent, key literary figures, a celebration of cuisine, and a UK film première.

The rapid expansion of its fanbase forced the organizers to seek out a building large enough to house the many aficionados clamouring for the opportunity to attend. Bidding farewell to the Farmiloe Building, Nordicana upped sticks and relocated to Spitalfield’s Old Truman Brewery and then promptly set about trying to fill every inch of available floor space with entertaining talks, screenings, and demonstrations. Offering a more varied schedule than the previous event, it placed greater emphasis than before on Scandinavia’s rich legacy of crime literature whilst simultaneously celebrating the current crop of TV favourites and offering an intriguing glimpse of the future for Nordic Noir with a preview of The Legacy which will air on Sky Arts later in the year.

Neither a convention or an expo, Nordicana was an experience requiring attendees to throw themselves fully into the spirit of active participation alongside celebration.

A varied schedule enabled attendants to dip their toes into areas of Scandinavian culture that previously might have been alien to them. Neither high brow or restrictive, Nordicana set out to be inclusive and emphasised a playful spirit of spontaneity. Ostensibly set up to commemorate Scandinavian film, TV, and literature it was also a valentine to fans who have been carrying the torch for several years, knowing that they were privy to a secret about some of the finest fiction being produced within the last fifteen years.

Held over the same weekend that BBC Four screened the sensational finale to The Bridge‘s second season, Nordicana enabled several thousand enthusiasts to join together in the act of expressing their affection for the series and, in some instances, to discover for the first time what it means to share so passionately a love for a show with others who are equally committed in their appreciation. An entry point into fandom, the dining area became an vital part of the Nordicana weekend as devotees bonded over coffee whilst discussing a show, panel, or item they had purchased. For others it was the chance to meet again for the first time since the last event and share life stories in addition to debating plot points or opinions of panels. Harmonizing and facilitating, Nordicana brought together admirers from across the continent, enabling new friendships to blossom and cementing existing ones.

The multitude of series, films, and authors being lionized raises the possibility that a section of patrons may have visited Nordicana expecting to witness a single talk and were subsequently so swept up in the enthusiasm they stayed for longer and found themselves appreciating something that they’d either never seen before or erroneously thought might not be to their taste.

A two-way process, the amazement experienced by fans at seeing their favourite writers or performers on stage was matched by the oft expressed amazement by guests at being greeted by an enthusiastic audience equal in size and intensity to a pop concert. Glorifying and educational, the panels afforded the gathering the opportunity to see Sidse Babbet Knudsen sing a few lines from West Side Story‘s Somewhere, be stunned at how glamorous Sofia Helin is in comparison to Saga Noren, witness Emma Kennedy and Adam Price sample cakes, learn about the rules in place within post Dogme95 Danish cinema, and be entertained by Barry Forshaw’s good natured grilling of Arne Dahl and Håkan Nesser.

The only event of its type in the UK, Nordicana deserves high praise for bringing so many talented people to London for the benefit of a few thousand fans who otherwise would never ever get to express their thanks and enthusiasm.  We look forward to doing it all over again in 2015.

DVD Review: The Bridge – The Complete Season Two

With The Killing and Borgen now consigned to the immortality of DVD boxsets naysayers might have been tempted to inaccurately predict that the Scandinavian TV phenomenon had peaked. From Stieg Larsson through to the closing moments of our window in Birgitte Nyborg’s personal life and political career, Danish and Swedish culture has been covertly invading our high streets and TV screens. Retail outlets now routinely stock Faroese inspired sweaters to customers who may be unaware of their precise cultural significance and the relatively recent television series Broadchurch has demonstrated that creative professionals are studiously paying attention to how their Nordic counterparts craft quality popular drama.

High turnout to the recent Nordicana event and consistently impressive viewing figures for The Bridge‘s second season is testament that interest in all things Danish and Swedish remains buoyant. Fans will take additional comfort in the knowledge that not only is BBC Four committed to maintaining its now traditional Saturday foreign language slot throughout 2014, it will soon be complemented by programming from More4 and Sky Arts who have purchased the promising Mammon and The Legacy.

Once TV schedules were a barren wasteland, devoid of interesting programming from Europe, now the broadcast landscape has been energized by supreme shows from Europe characterised by complex storytelling, exemplary acting, and production values which frequently outclass any dramas currently being produced within the Anglosphere. Proving that aficionados of subtitled series are being rewarded with a golden age of exemplary titles and visible support from both BBC and Arrow Films, the pain of saying farewell to Borgen was soothed by unleashing the peerless second season of The Bridge onto a viewing public ill prepared for the emotional turbulence they would experience over the course of five weeks.

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As actor, presenter, screenwriter, and crime novelist, Hans Rosenfeldt has worked on, or been responsible for, some of the most intriguing series, films, and books to have appeared in Sweden over the last decade. No stranger to crime fiction, in partnership with Michael Hjorth he co-authored three Sebastian Bergman novels and scripted the Rolf Lassgård starring TV adaptation. Asked to create the first Danish-Swedish drama co-production Rosenfeldt pitched the highly original idea of placing a bi-sected corpse directly at the mid point of the Øresund Bridge, ensuring that police forces from neighbouring countries must co-operate in the investigation. The inception may pre-date The Killing, it took six years before Rosenfeldt’s ideas could be brought to screen and in that he time he honed the overall story arc ensuring that all subplots were integrated into the primary investigation with the right degree of poignancy.

A relatively hands off showrunner, at least in British terms, Rosenfeldt views dailies but doesn’t set foot on set, preferring not to inhibit the director’s freedom. Creative decisions about the overall tone of an episode and significance of specific scenes in terms of the overarching plot are worked out during production meetings which take place in the days and weeks before cameras roll on Saga and Martin’s investigation.

The hard work and determination displayed by Rosenfeldt and his core creative team, both in front and behind the lens, was justly recompensed with the news that the first season had been exported to one hundred and seventy four countries. Additionally, several remakes of varying quality were produced including Fox’s US-Mexican adaptation, and Sky Atlantic’s Anglo-French co-production The Tunnel.

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After a hair-raising finale to the first season, fans might have had reasonable cause for concern about the possibility of any new instalments diluting the impact of such an emotionally potent denouement. With Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) trapped by the near insanity of grief and guilt the series could have ended with his primal screams leaving viewers to conclude he would be forever-more be held prisoner within a personal hell without any possibility of salvation or redemption. The curtain was brought down on the show with such honest writing and depth laden performances a second series seemed inconceivable. Flying in the face of the law of diminishing returns, The Bridge‘s sophomore outing is an ingenious sequel which honours the previous batch of episodes before going on to trounce them and become a strong contender for finest Nordic drama to air on British TV screens since BBC Four opened up its schedules to European programming.

Highly accomplished acting and subtle plotting have delivered an ambitious series that accomplishes the near impossible trick of simultaneously telling a high concept story and an intense emotional tale.

Practically demanding a second viewing to spot the precise moments where specific incidents were first seeded, The Bridge delivers a complex narrative rich with subtext. Closer inspection reveals each line of dialogue is laden with additional layers of meaning, the significance of which is only fully revealed after watching the intensely charged climax. Offering no wastage, each moment of screen time is filled with intricately constructed character moments that riff on the season’s thematic subtext of unintended consequences.

Central to The Bridge‘s success is the relationship dynamic between Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) and Saga Norén (Sofia Helin), Playing with, and reversing, gender stereotypes an emotionally impulsive officer is partnered with a logician who sees social phenomena in terms of precise patterns.

In the thirteen months since events on the Øresund Bridge the only contact between Saga and Martin was at August’s funeral. Desk bound whilst he undergoes a therapy programme, Martin is still grieving for his son. Separated from his wife Mette (Puk Scharbau) and visibly tortured by feelings of remorse his colleagues treat him with kid gloves never expecting a return to active duty. Saga Norén is in charge of the investigating why a seemingly unmanned tanker piloted on a direct collision course with the Øresund Bridge. The mystery deepens when she discovers five youths chained up below the deck. Specifically requesting to be partnered once again with Martin, the pair reunite and try to deal with the consequences of what happened thirteen months ago whilst trying to solve the mystery.

Now a shadow of his former self, Martin is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Living in hope that he can reconnect with his family and silence the demons haunting his mind the opportunity to work with Saga is initially seen as a therapeutic exercise albeit one with considerable risks. Being partnered with the person who stopped him from killing Jens Hansen (Lars Simonsen) is fraught with dangers as the risk of confronting the past too soon, and without adequate medical supervision, has the potential to undo the recovery process and revert Martin to the state we saw him in at the closing moments of the first season.

Despite relatively minimal research, the producers were contacted by a Swedish aspergers charity that was very keen to praise the series’ representation of this form of autism. It is never explicitly stated within the narrative that Saga has this condition, but nonetheless this has become the most favoured diagnosis by fans and the popular press. Cast in the mould of a female Sherlock Holmes, Saga has a brilliant analytical mind coupled with an inability to break official regulations in the course of work.

The multifaceted script is replete with traps, shocks, reversals, and resets, the beauty of its construction becomes apparent after viewing the final episode. Playing games with the viewer, Rosenfeldt takes the viewer down seemingly blind alleys only to later reveal that the discarded information plays a vital part in the resolution. Emotional character arcs ground the series, preventing it from descending into an elongated logic game and assuring that the audience is able to enjoy the experiences of continually being thwarted in their attempts to double guess what links the disparate threats whilst becoming enthralled with the poignant voyage Martin and Saga take together and as individuals.

Trying to ascertain how five people listed as missing appear to be prisoners on a cargo ship opens up a panoply of enigmas and hazards. In reprising their professional relationship the mismatched pair of detectives inadvertently set in motion a chain of events that will take a sledgehammer to their friendship.

Despite being incarcerated within a maximum security prison in solitary confinement, Jens continues to make his presence felt. A force of destruction who thrives upon control and manipulation, he never expected to survive his confrontation with Martin at the end of the first season. Alone and dejected he feels impotent and seizes the opportunity to regain dominance when Martin asks to meet as part of a therapeutic exercise. Rejecting what appears to be an offer of redemption he remains an ever present opponent on the other side of the table.

Overflowing with ostensibly disconnected subplots that neatly dovetail as the series progresses. Mystification is continually augmented with the introduction of each new character, however as every scene and line of dialogue has been deliberately positioned to achieve a specific effect in terms of the narrative and the viewer’s enjoyment nothing has been left to chance by the writer, watching is initially akin to trying to piece together a jigsaw without a picture on the box for reference. Once the finale has been absorbed, the urge to immediately re-watch the series from beginning to end and savour the totality of a dense narrative with the benefit of enhanced knowledge is so strong it will take herculean powers of mental strength to resist.

A rusty ship drifting astray is the first in a series of puzzles that rapidly expands into a series of mysteries and tragedies involving poisoned food, eco terrorism, murder, industrial malpractice, and a threat to contaminate an entire EU conference with a virulent bacteria. Gathering clues whilst dealing with conflicting personal circumstances and a corrupted crime scene report, Saga and Martin race against the clock to discover who is behind the killings and prevent a disaster that could engulf the entire continent.

Wagnerian in scope, the second series of The Bridge delves into the darker moments of Saga and Martin’s psyches with contrasting outcomes. Whereas Saga is finally able to come to terms with a personal tragedy she has kept secret for many years Martin falls from grace and in doing so becomes a twisted reflection of Jens.

The Bridge is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bridge-Series-2-DVD/dp/B00GTKYI1C/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1391718104&sr=8-4&keywords=the+bridge

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bridge-Series-2-Blu-ray/dp/B00GTKYH90/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1391718637&sr=8-3&keywords=the+bridge+series+2

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bridge-Series-Sofia-Helin/dp/B00GTKYHU4/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1391718664&sr=8-4&keywords=the+bridge+series+2

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bridge-Blu-ray-Sofia-Helin/dp/B00GTKYHSG/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1391718664&sr=8-5&keywords=the+bridge+series+2