As much good stuff as we’ve had from the likes of Sweden, Denmark and, to a lesser extent, Norway, the Scandi Noir (or whatever you want to call it) genre is almost entirely bereft of Icelandic entries. Which is perplexing, because this beautiful, feral and beguiling island should be the perfect place on which to host a murder mystery. Yes, we’ve had Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude, but that was a mainly British production with an English-speaking cast of characters (as well as plenty of supernaturally-tinged hanky panky). But, thanks to creator Baltasar Kormákur, we now have Trapped – a 10-part series starring mostly Icelandic actors involving themselves in a one-location mystery. It’s Agatha Christie, it’s Anne Holt and it’s also Iceland’s most expensive ever TV series, in any genre. Thankfully, it’s also very good indeed.
Trapped (or Ófærð to give it its indigenous name) starts off in intriguing fashion. Two young people speed across the semi-Arctic wastes on a motorbike, their destination an abandoned factory. It’s their hideaway, and the way they’ve made a room inside the factory all cosy suggests that this is a secret place they come to drink, smoke and have a bit of nookie. Their reverie is brutally broken when a fire breaks out and a desperate Hjörtur tries to rescue his girlfriend, Dagný, from the flames.
To no avail.
Seven years later, we meet Andri and his family. Or to be precise, his ex-wife’s family who he lives with. There are the two in-laws, and his two young children. On the wall is a portrait of Dagný, acting as both a tribute and a constant reminder of the daughter that never got to grow up.
Andri – a big, gruffer-than-he-looks bear of a man – is the chief of police in the small port of Siglufjörður, in the northeast of the island. He is, ostensibly, a single parent to his two kids. Little does he know what kind of day he has in store. Just before he drives his children to school on a frigid, howling horror of a day, his father-in-law tells him that his ex-wife Agnes is coming to visit from Reykjavík, with her new boyfriend Sigvaldi in tow.
Already this gives Andri some depth, and immediately he’s plunged into a funk – not only does he live with his in-laws, who he’s close to, but their daughter is coming home, albeit briefly. He still wears his wedding ring. As his mind wanders – and after he’s dropped the kids off at school – he gets a call informing him that a body (which has had its head, arms and legs lopped off) has been fished out of the fjord. A murder in Siglufjörður is an unusual thing, and, furthermore, a Danish ferry full of passengers has just docked, which means every one onboard – including an older Hjörtur, who has become a disturbed, angry individual – is a suspect. (There was a great line from one of the port workers: “Bloody Danes. It’s like we’re a dumping ground for their dead bodies.”) Unfortunately a spectacularly unhelpful ferry captain (played by The Killing’s excellent Bjarne Henriksen) wants the lot of them off his ship (for reasons we will no doubt find out in due course), so the residents of Siglufjörður are faced with the prospect of the ship’s entire passenger list staying in their local school hall knowing full well that one of them could be a murderer. It’s an uncomfortable situation, not just for the locals – Andri must contain the whole thing with a skeleton staff and an ever-rising sense that it could get out of hand at any moment. Suddenly the town of Siglufjörður becomes the Icelandic equivalent of an Agatha Christie drawing room.
Around them, the majestic Icelandic landscape peers down on them like craggy elder states-people as the storm deepens; the snow constantly getting thicker and the roads becoming more and more impassable. The storm gets so bad an investigating team from Reykjavík cannot reach them, which means Andri and his two colleagues – Ásgeir and Hinrika – must deal with the mess on their own. It’s a tall order.
So that was the set-up and it was a goodie, but what elevated Trapped from your usual crime drama fare – and one that places it very firmly into the Scandi Noir oeuvre – is the depth of character, the not-too-fast-not-too-slow pace and what The Bridge’s Hans Rosenfeldt likes to call the ‘second story’: elements of political and cultural unrest that informs characters’ actions or a community’s chagrin. This socio-political background was evident here in Trapped, thanks to a Lithuanian mafia man and people trafficker (who bore a disconcerting resemblance to Twin Peak’s Bob) who was on board the ferry and was attempting to smuggle in two young Nigerian women. (The loathsome man had escaped police custody by the end of the second episode, thanks to a schoolboy error by Ásgeir.) There was also the prospect of Siglufjörður being bought by Chinese developers, which was met by disapproval from the community who had braved the storm to hear what the mayor and his cohorts had to say.
There was a lot going on, both in the first and second layer of the story, but at its heart I felt it was a family drama – Andri and estranged ex-wife Agnes were hardly getting along (I’m on Team Andri), while their children, especially the youngest, were turning into bullies, no doubt because of their parents’ difficult relationship.
What I liked about Andri, in particular, was that he wasn’t too territorial. Fortitude had very much a western feel to it, with Sheriff Dan Andersen bestriding his small town like a smiling pitbull – all kindness and light to his beloved flock, but snarling at anyone who dared to challenge him and his self-modified laws. Fortitude was very much good versus evil between two big, rutting entities – exactly how the western world likes to portray its battles – but Trapped was mellower in that respect. Yes, Andri wanted to do a good job and be recognised for it (it was intimated in episode two that he had previous with some members of the Reykjavík force), and yes, he was tormented, but he felt much more of a rounded character (in every way) because of these things, not in spite of them.
With a Lithuanian people trafficker on the loose, and a mysterious Hjörtur back in town causing mischief (not least for Anges’s family, his very presence reminding them of their daughter’s death), these are our main suspects so far (although the constantly-smiling, potato-dropping school caretaker looks odd and out of place, precisely because he’s smiling all the time) but it’s too early and I sense the Chinese development story will grow and new characters will be brought in, as they always are. For now, Trapped presented a community shaken to the core because of a heinous act, but also brought together because of it. This kind of friction can only lead to one thing – long-standing secrets being revealed and mental, ahem, fortitude tested to the limits.
An excellent start.
Trapped Continues Saturday on BBC Four.