REVIEW: The Flatey Enigma (S1 E1/4)

Last November I went on my semi-regular trip to Reykjavik and, while I was there, state broadcaster RÚV broadcasted the first episode of its big, new crime drama for the winter, The Flatey Enigma.

Written by Margrét Örnólfsdóttir (who worked on series two of Trapped and has worked on various Icelandic crime dramas in the past) and adapted from Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson’s novel (as well as being made by Sagafilm), from what I saw it was a good-looking drama perfect for Sunday nights – it had that mainstream feel, it was a period piece (1971), the scenery was gorgeous and there were two strong mystery elements, including a whodunit. Of course, when I watched it back in 2018 on Icelandic television, it was completely in Icelandic and all I could do is follow it the best I can.

With all this pedigree behind the camera, I was waiting for someone like a BBC Four (it would’ve been a perfect fit for the channel) or a Walter Presents to pick this up.

And I carried on waiting.

And then I heard the news on the same day of broadcast that BBC Alba – the corporation’s Gaelic-language channel – had picked it up without any fanfare at all. It really was a surprise.

A surprise it may be, but thanks to the iPlayer, I was able to watch it – this time in English subtitles – and enjoy it hugely.

The story has a bit of everything crime drama fans love – it really is crime drama catnip. There’s a touch of the Dan Browns about it in its fantasy, historical riddle-solving strand; there’s a murder mystery; there’s an island just off the Westfjords  with gorgeous, stark scenery; there’s Icelandic history galore; and, because it’s set in 1971, there’s a strong period feel to it. And yes, that does mean chunky, knitted jumpers galore.

The story goes something like this: Jóhanna (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, in sparkling form), a professor of Nordic studies, comes home from Paris to attend her father’s funeral on the island of Flatey – a large, isolated island off the west coast of Iceland. She’s also looking to find work at Reykjavik University, but her feminist views about the systematic silencing of women’s voices in history do not go down well with the university hierarchy. The University want the manuscripts her father – they believed – had solved so they could beat the Danes and gain international kudos:  contained within The Book Of Flatey – part of the Icelandic Sagas – is a riddle; solve the riddle and you’ll find the grave of the ‘last heathen gothi’. 

She strikes a deal with the misogynist but desperate University director – she will go and retrieve meaning of the riddle from her father and he will publish a revolutionary essay on feminism and the patriarchy. They strike an uneasy deal.

Wearing the flares and the brown cardigans of the 1970s, Jóhanna arrives on the island with her son Snorri – also the name of her deceased father – and sets about reintegrating herself back into island life. There’s best friend Olga, who stayed behind and is about to have her sixth child, there’s de facto island Grimur, and there’s a mysterious stranger called Kjartan, who Jóhanna begins a relationship with (although this free spirit warns him that she’s not after a boyfriend).

Also arriving on the island is Danish professor Gaston Lund (old crime drama favourite Søren Malling) and immediately the pair begin to discuss her father’s work and findings. There’s some fun post-funeral drinking where Lund is faced with some drunk Flatey residence and Icelandic-Danish banter ensues.

When Lund is found shot in the eye on Kentilsey island – an island Jóhanna’s father had circled on his big map (kind of like an incident room board) – everything takes a turn and it becomes to resemble a single-location, locked-room whodunit mystery.

There’s also a twist when it comes to Jóhanna’s past – a shady policeman, Brynjar, who, its revealed is the father of Snorri, arrives on the island (dressed in black and smoking cigarettes like an archetypal villain) to investigate Lund’s death.

So there’s nothing complicated here, but there’s an involving story, a fine central performance from Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir who makes Jóhanna an instantly likeable character, and an involving mystery. Oh, and some great traditional Icelandic dress and traditions.

What’s not to like?

Paul Hirons




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