BBC4 – that great beacon of Saturday-night, foreign-language drama – has been in a bit of limbo for the past month or so. As the seasons have turned and we’re now ensconced into something darker and colder, the channel has recently broadcast Australian dramas The Code and Dark Water. Fair enough, but they just didn’t feel like a good fit in terms of tone and palette – watching characters call each other ‘mate’, running along beaches and wearing flip-flops at every opportunity just didn’t feel right in the middle of autumn and winter. But now we have something that fits in beautifully with the winter aesthetic and feel – a new eight-part, Swedish crime drama set during Christmas. Surely a sweet spot for Scandi noir fans and something to get the internal glögg bubbling.
NB: Spoilers coiled inside
Based on the books by best-selling Norwegian novelist Anne Holt, Modus started by doing something unusual – it showed us the killer in the very first scene. This clean-shaven, white, blue-eyed male – who goes by the name of Richard Forrester – was preparing to visit a swish hotel in Stockholm to, as it soon transpired, kill a woman. At this stage we were unsure of his motive or whether this was to be a one-off slaying, but Forrester was preparing for the hit in his caravan out in the snow-bound woods with meticulous detail.
When he reached the hotel, we found that Inger Johanne Vik (Melinda Kinnaman, who played Anna in The Bridge), a celebrity, ex-FBI profiler and single mum of two young girls, was also staying there. She was giving a speech at her sister’s wedding ceremony, but afterwards on the way back to their room they bumped into Isabella Levi, a celebrity chef, in the lift. It was Levi that Forrester had come to kill.
He soon did so in ruthless, brutal fashion; following her in a lift (another lift) as she was on her way to a massage, he punched her in the face with terrifying force to stun her and applied windpipe-crushing power in a precise and devastating strangulation technique.
But there was a complication – Inger Johanne’s eldest daughter, Stina, a quiet, socially-challenged child (perhaps Autistic, perhaps Asperger’s) went walk-about and saw the man carry the body out of the hotel. He saved her from an oncoming truck, and raised his finger to his mouth in the aftermath, to signify she should be quiet about what she had seen.
And so we were off. Inger Johanne was joined at the scene by policeman Ingvar Nymann (Henrik Norlén), and they established a friendship of sorts – he took her home and they talked, but Nymann turned out to be your classic tormented cop. We learned later, in episode two, he was divorced and the father of a dead child. Despite an obvious frisson (a mellow one, if that) between the two, he seemed to be afraid of human contact.
We also met, throughout the two episodes, other characters both in Stockholm and in nearby Uppsala: an outspoken female bishop; her craggy, melancholic husband Erik (Krister Henriksson in fine, nuanced and purse-lipped form) and their adopted African grandchildren; gay couple Magnus and Rolf; and Isabella’s partner Ulrika.
What we had here was a gang of characters that represented liberal, inclusive and gender and sexuality-neutral Sweden, a modern riff on the perceived Utopian Scandinavian idyll. Something that existed from way back in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s days, but, like the novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, this Utopia was under threat, and that threat here came in the shape of Forrester – an archetypal loner who hunted and fished in the wilderness with stoicsim and precision; a man who was heavily tattooed and took dips in frozen lakes because he’s some sort of self-flagellating demon living on the fringes of society. Although these scenes in the snow-covered woods looked stark and beautiful, and gave Forrester that bad-guy edge, I did worry that these scenes made him out to be a bit of a cartoonish villain. There was much sneering, much flexing of muscles and much ascetic living.
But we did get a hint into his motives: he tuned into an American church via webcast, which featured a preacher who was, well, preaching white power to his flock of eerily mono-dressed, glassy-eyed followers. He also gave Forrester instructions on who was going to be his next hit – the female bishop in Uppsala, Elisabeth Lindgren. Forrester dispatched her on Christmas Eve with a swift and well-placed knife to the neck.
So what we have here is an attack on liberal, inclusive values; a one-man reaper taking out beacons of neutrality and freedom. It’s prescient and topical, given the way the world is currently going, and provided Modus with the ‘second story’, as Hans Rosenfeldt describes it. Already in two episodes we have themes about family structure, religion, tolerance, sexuality and gender, and these dimensions give Modus an unmistakably Scandi edge. Add to those elements gorgeous interiors, elegiac countryside winter vistas and sweeping cityscapes, interesting characters and good acting and Modus had everything you could possibly want. But… not quite everything.
Modus broke some structure rules, not all successfully. Even though Isabella Levi was murdered in the first few minutes, her body wasn’t found until the end of the second episode (by her partner Ulrika). In between things meandered a little bit. I’m all for slow-moving drama and deep mining when it comes to characterisation, but I felt Modus overdid it a bit: there was scene after scene of quiet, scene-setting dialogue to the point where the storytelling felt a little stodgy.
But there was enough here to keep me intrigued: Forrester is currently stalking Stina; we need to know why Erik is being so shifty; and when will Inger Johanne be reeled into working with Ingvar after blocking his request to join the case?
I’m hooked, but with reservations.
For all our news and review of Scandinavian crime drama, go here