Review: The Bridge (Bron/Broen) 1×1-1×2

The best of Swedish and Danish TV

The Bridge

In the UK: Saturdays, 9pm, BBC4. Available on the iPlayer
In Sweden and Denmark: Aired last September on SVT1 and DR1. Second series commissioned for broadcast in 2013

It can’t have escaped your notice that the world is falling in love with Scandinavian darkness. As I’ve previously remarked, British TV certainly has, with BBC1 and BBC4 taking the lead with shows like Denmark’s The Killing, The Killing 2 and Borgen and Sweden’s Wallander (as well as the home-grown Kenneth Branagh version), and ITV3 making a stab at it with Denmark’s Den Som Dræber (Those Who Kill). But even the US has spotted the trend and as well as remaking Sweden’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movies, it’s adapted Denmark’s The Killing, now in its second season.

Do you know who else has noticed this trend? Scandinavians, that’s who. Spotting a golden opportunity to finally export a few shows rather than having to buy in 24 and Friends to fill the airwaves, Scandinavia is seizing it with both hands. Now Danish and Swedish TV have got together to create something that while entirely Scandinavian in character still has an eye on the worldwide market: The Bridge (aka Bron/Broen depending on whether you’re Swedish or Danish).

The story is seemingly simple: on the Øresun bridge between Copenhagen in Denmark (ooh, where The Killing is set!) and Malmö in Sweden (ooh, where Wallander is set!), someone leaves a body precisely halfway of the border between the two countries. This means that both Swedish and Danish police have to investigate, forcing an uneasy alliance between two apparent stereotypes who quickly reveal themselves to be a lot more than merely the Swedes and the Danes’ mutual national images: an icy female Swedish detective with Asperger’s (ooh, Dragon Tattoo!) and a salt-of-the-earth male Danish detective. But before investigations have gotten very far, it soon becomes obvious that this is just the tip of a very elaborate plan, one designed to change both countries and their ideas of justice.

And despite the fact it doesn’t have the emotional depth of The Killing, that it’s a little bit unrealistic and there is that slight hint to everything of a global market being eyed, this is actually really good television. So good, in fact, that despite it airing two episodes a week on BBC4 and my PVR actually recording Girls of the 90s on Viva the first time it aired, I actually found time to buck my normal trend and watch it before the next two episodes air tonight. Isn’t that amazing?

Here’s a trailer in Danish, because the BBC, in their infinite wisdom, haven’t put anything up on YouTube in English – although it’s worth remembering that when the show aired in both Sweden and Denmark it had to be subtitled whenever the other country’s characters spoke, so we’re all in it together, here. There’s also a little snippet from the beginning of the first episode as well, because it has a lovely opening sequence that I thought I’d share with you.

About
A woman is found murdered in the middle of Oresund Bridge, exactly on the border between Sweden and Denmark. Saga Noren from Malmo CID and Martin Rohde from the Copenhagen police department are called to the scene. What at first looks like one murder turns out to be two. The bodies have been brutally cut off at the waist and joined together – the torso of a high-profile Swedish politician and the lower body of a Danish prostitute. The Swedish and Danish police need to cooperate in a race against the clock, desperately searching for a murderer determined to go beyond all moral limits to get his message across.

Is it any good?
Right from the get-go, this is gripping TV. It’s beautifully shot, beautifully acted and well written. Okay, there’s a certain ‘heightened reality’ about the whole thing but it’s TV – we can cope.

The show initially plays out like a comparison of national stereotypes. Swedish detective Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) seems initially to be rich, icy, regal and such a stickler for the rules that she won’t even let an ambulance carrying a heart donor cross her crime scene. By contrast, Danish detective Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) is a warm, affable, friendly type who bends the rules and doesn’t mind too much if his police force have been incompetent. Maybe we could all just sit down, drink beers and talk about it.

The show plays on these culture clashes: Noren can’t pronounce Rohde’s name and Rohde has to talk slowly to the Swedish police so they can understand him; Noren is also stunned when Rohde actually lies to someone during an interrogation and files a report against him for letting that ambulance through.

But it soon becomes clear that there’s more to both of them: Noren is ‘special’ (at least in Swedish – in English, her colleagues call her ‘odd’) – she clearly has Asperger’s Syndrome and her icy, ‘quirky’ behaviour is the result of her lack of empathy, something that becomes clear well before the end of the second episode when she goes on a one-night stand that leaves the man in question feeling distinctly used and confused.

Rohde by contrast is very friendly, but largely with women, which is why he has five children by three women; his own empathy appears to stop with his own teenage kids who have just moved in with him.

Largely, Noren gets much of the limelight in these first two episodes. With her leather trousers, vintage Porsche and highly individual behaviour, she’s by far the more colourful character. Sofia Helin does an excellent job of portraying someone with Asperger’s, from body movement through facial expressions (or lack thereof) to the unbreaking stare. It’s perhaps a little unlikely that someone with a case of Asperger’s as apparently un-treated as hers and with as little grasp of neurotypical emotions and behaviours as she has would get so far as a police detective – or that no one would have told her by now not to take her top off in the middle of the office – but unlike The Killing (at first), this isn’t trying to achieve mimesis. Like much of the show – and indeed modern Scandinavian televised and filmed fiction – this is a heightened reality where interesting things happen, usually to make a political point.

Bodnia’s an apparent second-fiddle at the moment, and although he’s holding his own in terms of the investigation, it’s Noren who gets the inspired ideas and who appears to be the better detective. Presumably, that will change further down the line, given the Danish funding for the show, perhaps with Noren learning from Rohde how to be better at reading people and Rohde learning to be a more analytical detective from Noren.

The investigation itself is of the stock-in-trade ‘brilliant serial killer’ character, who in this case is killing people to demonstrate political points about the justice system and inequality, with prostitutes and the homeless the first groups to be singled out as receiving unequal treatment. He’s been planning this for three years, it seems, and so there’s a lot more to come – naturally, at the moment, the police are looking a bit noddy in their attempts to catch him.

As well as a journalist who’s being used by the killer to get his message out to the world, playing along in the background of this are a couple of other storylines: a woman, the wife of a rich businessman, who is trying to get her husband a heart transplant before he dies; and a man, formerly homeless, who helps people in trouble, including a woman who’s being beaten by her junkie husband. Quite how they intersect with the main storyline remains to be seen, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the heart-donor strand depicts Noren’s parents.

The show has a lot of the stereotypical traits you’d expect of a Scandinavian show: perpetual darkness, a wintery backdrop, a certain moroseness, an obsession with politics and politicians, a quiet intelligence, computer hacking and a penchant for full frontal nudity by both men and women.

But it’s actually quite funny, it’s interesting to see Danes and Swedes interacting in the same show, it makes some interesting political comments about policing, and it does at least show that Wallander‘s slightly incompetent policing isn’t the standard MO for Swedish cops. It’s also very tense, engrossing and with a good range of well-drawn characters and sub-plots. Saga Noren is a stand-out character – no Lisabeth Salander clone but a character in her own right – who I think I’m probably a little in love with already.

Go and watch so you can, too.

Theories
While there are probably all sorts of Wallander stories on the same subject, the show this all puts me in mind of most is a little-remembered West German show from the 80s, Gambit, which was all about a group claiming to be terrorists and committing terrorist acts that actually turns out to be a physics professor trying to show the world the dangers of nuclear power and how a real terrorist could go about bringing Germany to its knees if he wanted. Ask me nicely about it and I’ll do it as a Lost Gem some time.

But working on the same principle, I’m going to guess at an academic or a politician, possibly one we haven’t met yet or maybe the husband of the murdered woman. How about you?