Ever since the success of Trapped, Iceland has become a very worthy star in the constellation of Nordic Noir, so called. It’s not surprising – it’s a beguiling, magical place, with majestic landscapes, that Nordic sisu in abundance and a barren, isolated feel to it. This four-part tale tells the story of a double murder on an island where crime rates are notoriously low, and features a tormented cop who has to confront his past in his hometown in order to help crack the case. Sound familiar?
This Icelandic procedural stars Björn Hlynur Haraldsson (who I like and we saw as the dastardly Trausti in Trapped and also in Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude) as Reykjavik detective Helgi Marvin Runarsson, who is assigned to work with the local police at the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, on a simple suicide case. Except this is no normal place, and this is no normal suicide case.
First off, it’s the town where he grew up in and still remembers an incident that has scarred him since childhood – when he was assiled by a group of children, beaten and brutally branded. So he’s carrying that around with him. He’s also carrying around the ghost of a dead son. So far, so tormented.
When it comes to the suicide case, things are soon revealed – thanks to extensive forensic research – to be not-so-suicidey. The victim, a high-powered businessman called Björn is just the tip of iceberg – Helgi and his fresh partner, Gréta (Heida Reed, who we see regularly in the UK as Elizabeth in Poldark), start assembling the suspects – Auður, a hotel manager; his old childhood branding buddy Gísli; and the victim’s brother-in-law, Ari. All are seen in the interview room, as Helgi gets angrier and angrier (until, naturally, he’s told to calm down).
As this investigation continues, there’s another major event – a father and daughter go missing on the lava field of the show title’s name. The field – a craggy, unforgiving, bleakly beautiful place – is full of myth and tales of the bogeyman, in this case Iceland’s very own bad man from history, Axlar-Björn an axe murderer from the early 16th century.
These two missing people are eventually found, and are discovered to have had links with Björn. In fact, as the four episodes unravel at pace we find that the head of a biker gang Helgi interviewed at the start of the series is involved in a money laundering and drug smuggling gang that links South America to Europe.
Things escalate until the biker gang kidnaps Helgi’s daughter and a tense finale is guaranteed. Except… it’s not that tense. Everything in The Lava Field feels familiar and by-the-numbers, and, because of its short run, there’s no way to really engage with the characters like we did in, say, Trapped. That was such a deeply satisfying experience because we were allowed to luxuriate in characterisation, slowly evolving storylines and, of course, the snow-bound landscape. Here, in The Lava Field, things spring out of nowhere and feel a bit forced, right from the characterisation of Helgi, Helgi’s relationship with Gréta (which gave a cursory nod to Nordic crime dramas gone by, almost a facsmile of others we’ve seen), the cartoonish head of the biker gang and the, indeed, the kidnapper of Helgi’s daughter (who turns out to be an old foe).
It’s well made and well acted (and Iceland looks incredible in HD, this time often bathed in sunlight), but The Lava Field won’t challenge any of the big Nordic Noir players any time soon.
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