Review: Fortitude 1×1-1×3 (UK: Sky Atlantic; US: Pivot TV)

Do you have the strength to wait until it gets good?

Fortitude

In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, Sky Atlantic
In the US: Thursdays, 10e/p, Pivot TV

I remember watching the first episode of Twin Peaks very well. It was my first year at university and I was sat in the TV room. The hype for the show had been huge, and the room was full as a result. We sat waiting in expectation through the previous programme for the moment when David Lynch’s very first TV series would begin.

And for about 30 minutes, we sat there wondering what the hell all the fuss was about. This was boring. This was dull. David Lynch made this? David Lynch?

But then, through a simple straight cut scene change, we were catapulted into the Twin Peaks everyone would come to grow and love. Because we were suddenly in the car with Special Agent Dale Cooper of the FBI and finally we understood what the fuss was about.

Fortitude doesn’t quite have that moment but it has something almost approaching it. For pretty much two episodes, you sit with baited breath, watching the beautiful Icelandic filming and the famous cast as they enact a lifeless and – punningly enough – glacial script. Set in a small town on a Norwegian island in the Arctic circle where the inhabitants are outnumbered by polar bears and no one’s allowed to die, even the murder of one of the inhabitants isn’t enough to get things going in the frozen wastes of the prestige filming.

But then, in the last act of the second episode, Stanley Tucci arrives to save the day. The Agent Cooper of the piece, almost single-handedly he makes this a must-watch show… and he even brings the Twin Peaks with him. Here’s a trailer.

About
A host of stars are braving the Arctic chill of Sky Atlantic HD’s huge new tv series Fortitude, premiering Thursday 29th January 2015 at 9pm.

Academy Award nominee Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston, Sofie Grabol, Richard Dormer, Jessica Raine, Luke Treadaway, Nicholas Pinnock and Johnny Harris will star in the 12 hour thriller, which is centered on a mysterious death in the Arctic Circle and will be filmed in Iceland and the UK.

Fortitude is a place like nowhere else. Although surrounded by the savage beauty of the Arctic landscape, Fortitude is one of the safest towns on earth. There has never been a violent crime here. Until now. In such a close-knit community a murder touches everyone and the unsettling, mysterious horror of this crime threatens the future of the town itself.

The local Chief of Police, Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Dormer), has to investigate alongside DCI Morton (Tucci), the detective who has flown into Fortitude so fast that questions are being asked about how much he knew, and when. As these two cops try to make sense of the killing, each finds compelling reasons to mistrust and suspect the other.

The murder is a catastrophe for Hildur Odegard (Grabol), the town’s Governor. It threatens her ambitious plans to transform Fortitude from a mining town into a site for high-end tourism. And for Henry Tyson (Gambon), a wildlife photographer who only has weeks left to live, the murder is the catalyst to unearthing Fortitude’s darkest secret.

Also key to the story are Charlie Stoddart (Eccleston), an English scientist who heads up the Arctic Biology department at the Fortitude Arctic Research Centre, talented young scientist Vincent Rattrey (Treadaway), the newest member of Stoddart’s team, and Jules Sutter (Raine), who is married to Frank Sutter (Pinnock), Fortitude’s chief search and rescue pilot.

As the cold Arctic darkness gives way to endless summer nights, this apparently idyllic community struggles to make sense of the murderous horror that has been let loose in its heart.

Created and written by Simon Donald, Fortitude will air exclusively on Sky Atlantic HD in January 2015.

Is it any good?
Had you asked me that after the end of the first episode, I’d have told you not to bother with it. Had you asked me after the end of the second episode, I’d have said maybe, but I’d have to wait and see. Fortunately, Sky Atlantic sent me three episodes to watch so I can happily report that it’s worth watching.

So the first thing to do is warn you that despite the big-name cast, only Stanley Tucci (3 Lbs, Julie & Julia, Murder One) and Sophie Gråbøl (The Killing/Forbrydelsen) really have much to do, Tucci only in the third episode. Gambon, Eccleston and Raine, on the other hand, aren’t in it that much and at least one of them won’t be in it again because they’re dead by the end of the first episode (shades of Line of Duty there). Instead, it’s largely the Richard Dormer show, he playing the sheriff of Fortitude, a Norwegian island town that has no crime.

The first episode is very much set-up for the murder, introducing the characters and all their possible motivations for killing the unlucky victim. Unfortunately, Simon Donald (who wrote the original Low Winter Sun) makes it entirely obvious who’s going to be killed so there’s almost no element of suspense here.

However, we do get the first taste of the Twin Peaks qualities of the show, with random killings and polar bear attacks in the first few minutes, Dormer sending explorers back home because they don’t have guns with them, the uncovering of mammoth teeth and so on. Further additions to the milieu in later episode include a weird pig experiment, the possible uncovering of plague victims, incompetent local police officers who can’t even record an interview correctly and more.

Once Tucci arrives, things get a lot better though. Effortlessly charming and quirky, he dominates the screen and his character quietly dominates all the other characters through quiet intelligence rather than shouting or hitting people. Tucci’s character is a member of the British police; Tucci is American; everyone spots that he’s American; he never explains why he’s in the Met.

It’s odd.

Dormer does well as the initially antagonistic sheriff, who is as much a suspect for the murder as anyone else. His Norwegian accent is usually credible, often approaching Stellan Skarsgård* at times, but varying. Gråbøl, who’s the governor-mayor-lawyer-chief of police of the island, starts off as suspect, moves through Borgen-esque politico, before eventually investigating crimes à la Forbrydelsen by the end. Oddly, she’s about the only one of the alleged Scandinavians without a Scandinavian accent or who speaks a Scandinavian language.

Unfortunately, the show’s a little littered with seemingly irrelevant side-plots, ranging from Raine and Nicholas Pinnock’s sick son getting frostbite while Pinnock’s off seeing his Spanish mistress, through to Treadaway’s attempts to adapt to island life and eventual incarceration. There’s a lot of unnecessary ‘bonking’, just for titillation, and the police’s antagonism towards Tucci gets a bit tedious after a while.

Nevertheless, Tucci by himself makes this worth watching, as does the Icelandic photography – if you’ve been to Iceland, the fact it’s so recognisably Iceland and not Norway confuses things a little. There’s comedy as well as drama and it’s unlike just about any murder-mystery you’ll have seen before. There’s no Black Lodge and the owls probably are what they seem, but the small community with its odd ways is novel to watch. It’s also to Sky’s credit that it’s creating its own Nordic Noir from scratch, rather than trying to remake an existing one.

So tune in, but don’t give up until Tucci turns up. And be warned, just like Iceland, once you’ve been to Fortitude, you’ll want to go back.

* I’m aware that he’s Swedish, but Dormer sounds like him at times