With so much on at the moment it’s difficult to keep up with everything, but after watching the first episode of 10-part Icelandic crime drama, Case, on Channel 4 last week, I wanted to make time for the nine remaining episodes, now being shown in their entirety on Walter Presents. Why? It had something about it – the characters were intriguing, the crime (a young teenage girl was found hanged at the theatre she practised ballet at) had tragic and desperate overtones and the suspects were already being lined up. So this weekend – a wet, miserable weekend, no less – I snuggled up with four more episodes of Case. I soon found that it was hardly snuggling-up material.
That first episode last week was beautifully paced and displayed that canny knack only the best Nordic Noirs seem to pull off of moving glacially along while still managing to pack a lot of information and comings and goings into it. I genuinely don’t know how they do that.
With Case I was soon heading down a rabbit hole so dark, so warped and so insidious that by the end of these four episodes I either needed a cold shower or a week in a sauna. Or both.
The suspects began to be processed.
At the end of episode one, we left first major suspect Júlíus – a youth centre warden – hastily and shiftily burning Lára’s clothes on a deserted beach. There was very definitely much more to come from this loathsome young man. With the smug, self-satisfied air that permeates someone who has, for too long, been getting away with it, we found out that he and his younger brother were luring teenage girls from the youth centre back to their lair, Júlíus pretending to be a porn star and videoing his sexual escapades and distributing them around the school. Homemade porn made by teens for teens. It’s a disturbing concept, and one that taps into the new internet age of shaming – it was a new level of shame and embarrassment for those unwittingly featured in Julius’s ego-fest. This narrative strand culminated not only in the arrest of the boy, but also a suicide attempt by Elfa Dögg, Júlíus’s latest conquest. She thought he was her boyfriend, and trusted him enough to experiment sexually for the first time. To him, Elfa was just another participant in his warped, narcissistic game. You could hardly blame her for feeling such innard-crumbling levels of shame and embarrassment, especially as she was subsequently verbally attacked both at school and on internet message boards as the video did the rounds. As she lay in the bath and the blood from her self-made wrist wounds misted the clear water, I almost wept for her.
The next suspect to be processed was Egill, Lára’s so-called boyfriend. He was also a dead end (and another touching story – he revealed that he was gay, and that Lára was happy to pretend that she was girlfriend in order to shield him from prejudice), but again this was a meaty, interesting, socio-political narrative all of its own, and one that really made you think.
These first five episodes of Case were full of these shocking, thought-provoking moments. It felt like each of the suspect’s storylines were worthy of a series of their own, so packed were they with ethical, social and moral concerns. Every good crime story should have these elements that propel characters’ motives, but here, in Case, there was something raw, unpleasant and difficult to watch that frequently bubbled up to the surface.
Julius’s storyline concerned statutory rape, and because of that we saw plenty of explicit teenage sex in little excerpts from his videos. Later, when it was discovered that Lára and her troubled sister Hanna’s naked pictures were posted on a teen porn site, we saw them too. We saw their naked forms on computer screens and on print-outs, and I wasn’t sure how to feel. It’s well documented that the Nordic countries’ attitude to nudity and sex is far less prurient and has, in social situations, almost sex-less connotations. We in the UK, on the other hand, are different. Every naked body we see we’ve been taught to react with “phwoar!” or “eww!” depending on whether the body shape conforms to our media’s self-described ‘perfect body’. But generally these are adult bodies we’re talking about, not teenagers.
When I saw images of naked Lára and naked Hanna I didn’t know what to think. I was disgusted and horrified for them, as characters, that their bodies had been exploited and visually abused, placed in an unlawful context for paedophiles to look at. (Indeed, Logi (I’ll talk about him in a bit), had actually gone to a tagged paedophile for advice during his investigation. The man almost salivated when he saw the pictures of naked Lára.) I wrestled with the idea that these repeated showings of these naked teenage forms were gratuitous. As ever with sex and nakedness, you have to consider the context and ask the question: did we need to see this? To me the answer was no – there could have been some concealment while still conveying the horror of these girls’ situations.
I like to think of myself as an open, liberal person and a part of me understands the argument the programme makers will no doubt put forward – that this stuff is really happening out there so why sugar-coat it? I’d be interested to hear what you think. Still, this aspect of Case – this raw, unapologetic, unflinching element – will turn a lot of people off.
I’m still chewing all this over and keep flipping from one side to the other, but at this moment and bearing everything I’ve discussed I have to say that I think Case did over-stepped the mark on numerous occasions and that this is why this drama won’t be for everyone. I can’t think of a British crime drama where so much teenage nudity has been on show – I think there would be uproar.
One of the things that will keep people watching is the traditional whodunit aspects of Case (although at the moment it’s a why-did-she-do-it?), and also the characters. There are characters here that you may not love but who are deeply flawed and three-dimensional. Ex-lawyer-cum-mercenary Logi is certainly one of those characters. Re-hired by Brynhildur, he sets about his work with a singular determination. He breaks into suspects’ houses, nicks a bottle of vodka from their cabinet and walks around glugging away. All he cares about is getting the information he needs from people, sometimes at the expense of the person he’s trying to get the information from. Yes, he shows compassion and empathy, but he’s out to the get the information and damn everything else. When he interviewed Elka Dögg, he managed to tease out the information about Júlíus from her but then immediately left her to stew in her own shame without organising any support. She later tried to take her own life. His relationship with his long-suffering partner, Ilmur, is also great to watch, in a volatile, you’re-never-sure-what-to-expect-next sort of way.
If anything, over the course of these first five episodes the roles of detectives Gabríela and Högni have taken a bit of a back seat (although we’re starting to discover more about Gabríela’s troubled sister, Rakel), and at the half-way stage we’re left with attention firmly focused on the dodgy techniques used by ballet teacher Benedetto to get the best from his students, Jónas’s dodgy dealings and Lára’s sister Hanna and her relationship with Þór.
I have no idea what to think about Case just yet, but one thing is clear – underneath the incredibly dark, disturbing and duplicitous dealings there is a gripping procedural grinding away here. Whether you can stomach all the other stuff and concentrate on the investigative elements is another question entirely.
For our review of episode one of Case, go here