Starring: Peter Eggers, Joel Spira and Linda Zilliacus
Amazon price: £16.92
Released: October 28th 2013
Original network: SVT
'Nordic noir' is a fairly flexible concept, but largely, most people think of it as dark crimes being solved by the police in Scandinavian countries: think of The Killing, The Bridge, Those Who Kill et al. That’s certainly what you’ll be able to see on BBC4.
But as with any genre, there’s more to nordic noir than the acquisitions staff at TV networks decide to spend their money on. Anno 1790, a 2011 Swedish show, demonstrates this pretty clearly. As the name suggests, it’s set in Sweden in AD1790. It’s just after the French Revolution and anti-monarchy sentiment is catching like wildfire across in Europe. In Sweden, the king is making himself even less popular with a war against the Russians that’s killing many for little purpose but is thankfully coming to an end.
A doctor in the Swedish army, Johan Gustav Dåådh (Peter Eggers), finds his life changed forever when his compatriot Simon Freund (Joel Spira) is nearly killed in the war and asks Dåådh to take him home. Freund is the tutor of the children of Carl Fredrik Wahlstedt, the commissioner of Stockholm’s constabulary, and it’s not long before Dåådh is using his keen deductive skills, scientific knowledge and sense of justice to investigate crimes at Wahlstedt’s behest.
The only trouble? Not only is Dåådh a republican, a friend to some really quite violent anti-monarchists, and Wahlstedt nobility employed directly by the king, but Dåådh is falling in love with Wahlstedt’s wife, Magdalena (Linda Zilliacus) - and she with him.
It’s like CSI crossed with Whitechapel and Barry Lyndon, but all in Swedish. Here’s a trailer and an exclusive video to give you a taster. I’ll talk more about the show after the jump.
Unlike a lot of Scandinavian shows I could mention that start well and then drop off towards the final episode, Anno 1790 starts off as a bit of a mess before getting stronger and stronger through the season.
In traditional US style, it starts with massive plot dump and exposition, positioning everyone for the roles in the rest of the season. Dåådh, a somewhat dull but earnest man who takes his top off a lot, is clearly the hero of the piece, a Swedish liberal at a time when not all Swedes were liberals. The joke here, unlike with other period shows such as The Doctor Blake Mysteries with similarly right-on-before-their-time heroes, is that Dåådh is dead set against monarchy yet to this day, Sweden is still a monarchy (it becomes a properly constitutional monarchy nearly 20 years after the series is set).
His pal Freund - like a lot of the characters, there seem to be jokes in the names, Freund being German for friend and a later character who is suspected of being a bomber being called ‘Bang’ - is somewhat all over the place. Initially, he is by turns stupid, sometimes comedic, largely a plot device, and someone to carry things and have everything explained to. But later on, he becomes a more interesting counterpart to Dåådh - a devout man to Dåådh’s stark atheist, a moral conscience as Dåådh and Madalena become more infatuated with each other, a man who can talk to children when the childless Dåådh doesn’t know how and a member of the proletariat, shut out from proceedings as the revolutionary Dåådh slowly becomes more and more part of the establishment.
Magdalena, too, evolves from being the Unobtainable Woman, as equally dull as Dåådh and equally as liberal to being something a bit more nuanced: a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a much older partner, frustrated at not being able to do her former job any more because of her new aristocratic status; a pious woman, unwilling to break her oath of marriage when she finds real love with Dåådh.
And it’s largely these relationships that make the show what it is. The stories themselves, as with Serangoon Road and other crime shows set in exciting periods of history, have a marked tendency to be 'historically illustrative’, demonstrating some aspect of the morality or attitudes of the period that we might find unusual now. These range from exploitation of orphans, abuse of ‘animal magnetism’ and bomb plots through to the importation of musk and the king’s crackdown on free speech and seditious material.
Anno 1790 isn’t afraid to depict sex and nudity, either, and as this is nordic noir, it can be pretty graphic with its depictions of violence. People have things embedded in their skulls and their faces destroyed by bombs. Wounds suppurate and ooze frequently. One particularly harrowing episode, which also shows the typical attitudes of the time towards rape, has a pretty nasty depiction of an illegal abortion as well. So if you’re squeamish, look away.
Dåådh investigates these crimes using his analytical mind, rather than the torture preferred by the rival for his job, Nordin (the wonderfully named Richard Turpin), which also gets shown quite frequently. Sometimes, this is well handled; other times, it just results in Dåådh guessing wrong and having the true criminal confess in order to stop the wrong person getting put behind bars.
But to be honest, you’re not watching this for the crime stories and at least they’re not season-long stories that end badly, as with some shows. Instead, if you’re going to buy this, it’s because it looks beautiful, with some incredible cinematography and depictions of Stockholm of 1790. It evokes the period well, right down to the frequent use of French by the nobility, which the subtitles don’t bother to translate. And then there’s the love story, the intrigues and the slow corruption of Dåådh’s morals. There’s also some lovely acting from Eggers and Zilliacus.
Despite the nordic noir tag, this isn’t really a show for those who like the modern policiers with political undertones that BBC4 likes to show. Instead, this is best regarded as an engrossing, accessible period drama with a crime element - a sort of Swedish Murder Rooms with a story of suppressed passion. It’s a shame it never got picked up for a second season, since it was clearly heading towards the murder of King Gustav in 1792 and all that would have brought.
Still, at least now you can watch the first season. It certainly beats Inspector Montalbano.
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