One of the nice things about waking early on a Sunday morning is the chance to enjoy a SkandiKrime series in pale blue comfort, and to write about it unhurriedly.
The latest of these is Department Q, a film series ninety minutes in length, starring Nikolas Lie Kaas (The Killing 3, Follow the Money 1) as Carl Morck and Fares Fares as Assad. The films are based on a crime series written by Jussi Adler-Olson and there have been three to date, which BBC4 have bought for the next couple of week’s entertainment, and are apparently very popular as exports, though they don’t, on this evidence, offer anything particularly new.
What we have is another Cold Case set-up. Homicide Detective Morck, who is a maverick, albeit lower on the spectrum than the egregious Mads Justesen, refuses to wait for back-up as ordered and leads his two colleagues into a seemingly deserted house. All three get shot: one dead, one crippled for life, and Carl takes a bullet to the head that leaves a fetching scar and a case of shaking hands. After the statutory minimum three month sick leave, Carl wants back to work (his wife has also chose to divorce him).
But his superior Jacobsen won’t put him back on Homicide, even if anyone of his colleagues there would work with him. Instead, he’s chosen to head up the newly-created Cold Case squad, Department Q.
As Cold Cases are when they’re first established, Department Q is a joke, a pseudo-section, not intended to be serious. It’s a way-station for police edging, or being edged towards retirement. Carl’s only assistance is Assad, whose background is left completely obscured, save that for him Department Q is supposed to be a step up, poor bugger: he has spent the last two years in a depot stamping things.
Basically, Department Q are supposed to go over the last twenty years worth of Cold Cases, write a two-page report on each and close them. They’re not supposed to investigate anything. In short, and despite the absurdly romantic sub-title, ‘The Keeper of Lost Causes’, with its suggestion of the quixotic that had me wanting to like it, this series doesn’t have an original idea to it. Over the course of ninety minutes, everything happens that you would expect to happen. The maverick cop in charge refuses to do what’s expected, people don’t want the case re-opened, he’s impatient and abrasive, his boss orders him to cut it out, he lies and cheats, he’s suspended but carries on the investigation and, naturally, is completely vindicated.
The chosen case is that apparent death-by-suicide of politician Merete Lyngaard, five years ago. Merete is played by the lovely Sonia Richter, which was good enough for me, though I was rather disappointed (and not only for the obvious reason) to find the show adopting the American trope that women never ever take their bras off when screwing.
Merete, an attractive and sexually active woman in her mid-thirties without a regular relationship, was also the only support and carer for her younger brother Uffe, brain-damaged in a car accident that killed both her parents. Carl is disbelieving that a woman like that, who has so comprehensively cared for her helpless brother, would commit suicide by jumping off a ferry on which she was taking care of Uffe. And he’s right to do so, because as he and Assad piece the witness reports together, we the viewer get an extended version in which Merete is attacked but, rather than be murdered, be imprisoned in a mysterious dark place, in which she has been kept alone for five years.
My lack of technical knowledge prevented me from recognising her environment as being a pressure chamber, or from totally understanding the significance of her being kept under increasing atmospheres. Once a day, her captor exchanges food and toilet buckets, once a year he increases the pressure one atmosphere and speaks to her. Merete manages to keep her sanity, determinedly reminding herself of her identity, and that of Uffe, every day.
The purpose of the pressure chamber, and the slow way in which Merete is being gradually acclimatised to six atmospheres pressure, is to duplicate the effect of deep sea diving: ultimately, her captor intends to kill her by depressurising the chamber completely, forcing her to go through an extreme version of the Bends, and die horribly.
We cut back and forth between Merete’s endurance of her imprisonment (excellent work by Richter, both mentally and physically) and Carl and Assad’s investigations that gradually uncover Lars ‘Lasse’ Johnsen, a former foster-child who, under an assumed name, got close to Merete at a conference (hence the screwing scene). But why, apart from the increasing evidence that he was a psychotic, would this man torture the poor woman so?
I’m afraid that the film tipped its hand, to me at least, far too early. It was meant to be subtle, fleeting, a brief foreshadowing, but the moment I saw that the car accident that killed the Lyngaard parents had also involved a second car, whose occupants had also suffered deaths, I expected the bad guy to be a survivor of that other car, out for revenge, because of some misplaced belief that Merete, though only a child, was responsible.
In that respect, I got it wrong. We saw the accident through Lasse’s mind, late on, when he was trying to keep the defrocked detectives from stopping him killing Merete: the girl had been playing from the backseat, with her hands over her mother’s eyes in the front seat when the Lyngard car was overtaking the Johnsen one. As they drew alongside, the two children stared into each other’s faces. The girl stuck out her tongue, then reached across and put her hands over the eyes of her father, who was driving…
Afterwards, the only unscathed survivor, the girl wandered around unconcerned. To our eyes, she was clearly in shock, but to Lasse…
So Carl, and to a lesser extent Assad, redeemed himself, got offered his Homicide job back, but turned it down in favour of Department Q. Which will now be run according to his rules: he chooses what cases he works and he works them how he wants. Just him and Assad, and a secretary.
So that’s Adler-Olson’s set-up, that’s Department Q‘s set-up, and that’s the next two Sunday morning spoken for. Hopefully, it can correct some of its cliches in the two subsequent films, and an injection of pace wouldn’t go amiss either: I mean, there’s deliberate, there’s measured, there’s tension-inducing and there’s sixty-minutes-of-story-filling-a-ninety-minute slot, and that was rather the case here.
Incidentally, the books have been translated into English, with Adler-Olson having written seven to date since 2011, so given the film’s popularity in Denmark, we can probably expect more in the future.