So here we are back in Scandinavia. It feels like a while since we’ve been in Denmark (well, not that long actually… we were there for February’s Follow The Money on BBC4), but this new five-part drama (for UK broadcast it has been re-packaged into five feature-length episodes instead of the 10 stand-alones that appeared in its native Denmark) is back on more familiar ground. The series has been adapted from Elsebeth Egholm’s novels (Egholm was also the creator of Scandi noir hit from 2011, Those Who Kill) and stars Iben Hjejle as crime journalist Dicte Svendsen who returns to her home town of Aarhus to not only confront ghosts from her past but also to help the police solve a gruesome murder investigation. So far, so crime-drama-by-the-numbers, but what sets Dicte apart from the rest is a good pace, and, unusually for a Scandinavian crime drama, a character that feels more three-dimensional than usual.
NB: Spoilers ahoy
Unlike Denmark’s other great female crime export, Sarah Lund, and, say, The Bridge’s Saga Norén, who plough lonely, tormented and obsessional furrows, Dicte Svendsen is a more social creature. She’s smart, urbane, quick-witted and, you get the impression, she likes people. She has friends, too, who are thrilled that, after a divorce, she’s back in her home town after being in Copenhagen for so long. She also funny, engaging in jokes with colleagues and has a close but entirely naturally up-and-down relationship with her teenage daughter, Rose.
So straight away we see Dicte as a fairly normal, rounded human being. Yes, she’s dealing with a divorce and, yes, she dealing with a teenage daughter who’s stepping out with an accused rapist at her new school, but Dicte is a likeable character, dealing with these things as any mother would – with an appealing mixture of stoicism, good humour and maturity. There is no hint of mental illness here, nor teeth-grinding obsession.
But a crime drama is a crime drama and Dicte has to have some sort of baggage to create conflict within her. That conflict comes in the shape of a missing son, who was snatched away from her by the Danish equivalent of social services immediately after she gave birth. Her parents, despite her being back in town, refuse to talk to her or help her find this missing son, who must be older than her teenage daughter.
There’s also a case for her to get stuck into.
Called away from a dinner from friends (this happened on numerous occasions during the episodes… her friends are either very understanding or don’t really care), she arrived at stand-off between immigrants and police in the downtown area (there’s the Scandi ‘second story’ again). She needed to pee so sneaked off into a secluded area to do her business. There, near to where she relieved herself, was the body of a young woman, who had been brutally and agriculturally C-sectioned, left for dead and her baby taken. It was gruesome discovery.
So Dicte was on the case, trying to charm her way into working with the police and, in particular, repressed and uptight chief, John Wagner. He worked with the old school Adidas-wearing Bendtsen (Ditte Ylva Olsen) who was chatty, informal and very funny at times, the perfect counterpoint to Wagner’s tightly-wound coil. But Dicte and Wagner’s relationship was frosty – he wanted to keep his information to himself, she wanted to work with him so she could report on the story. They fought, but you got the sense there’s some sort of strange frisson between these two.
Back to the case. Dicte had randomly found Remza, a young, pregnant Eastern European woman who had told her that ‘they’ were after her. She was soon kidnapped by the gang, despite Dicte’s best efforts. It was obvious what was happening here – a gang was using immigrants as surrogate mothers sell their babies to willing mothers.
This, of course, brought Dicte’s own predicament into sharp focus. In fact, the whole story revolved around the themes of motherhood – from Dicte’s relationship with daughter Rose, to her friend Ida Marie, who had been struggling to have a baby for years and understood how these mothers willing to pay for babies on the black market felt, and to the mother Dicte met during the investigation who had bought her son from the racketeers. Again, this threw up questions: what would you do if you knew you couldn’t have a chid but knew of where to buy one if it was your last chance at parenthood? And, for Dicte, she naturally wondered about the whereabouts of her own son.
In the end, the head of the gang was a woman – a neat twist – who defended her actions saying that she was giving the surrogates (all from Bosnia) a new life and some cash to start it with, while the women who were unable to give birth were getting the family they had always dreamed of. Unfortunately, she hadn’t factored in murder into her operation (which, it turned out, was perpetrated by Rose Svendsen’s boyfriend’s brother).
It was an interesting, pacy hour with issues that were dealt with maturely. And it was the characters dealing with these issues that made it so watchable. They felt believable and modern and people you could relate to yourselves. They were never hyperreal sketches, and never overwrought. Despite the seriousness of the subjects there was a lightness of touch on show, which, again, distinguished Dicte from other, darker, Scandi noirs. There was some humour in there for a start.
It wasn’t perfect, of course. I thought the way Dicte and her hunky doctor initiated their fling was almost comical, and I refused to believe that Wagner and, especially, the clued-up Bendtsen didn’t know about the marijuana/pizza shop in such a small town like Aarhus. Wagner also took an almost creepy level of interest in Bendtsen’s private life.
Still, Dicte was watchable, enjoyable and Iben Hjejle plays her character with a human touch, and one with a confident, twinkle in her eye. And that makes her very likeable indeed.
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