Nordic Noir has become synonymous with dark meticulously crafted story-lines, unforgettable three-dimensional characters, and spellbinding realization of natural atmosphere. For more than a decade, morally complex crime fictions hailing from Scandinavian nations are kindling our reading appetite more and more. Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck mystery series kicked off in 1965 and finished in 1975. The novels were adapted into multi-part TV series and numerous films. The authors take on social conflicts and characterization of detective protagonist later found its way into the Nordic Noir, where Swedish and Norwegian writers like Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy), Henning Mankell (Wallender series), and Jo Nesbo (Harry Hole series) transcended premises of murder mystery into fascinating critique on contemporary European society and western capitalism. The boundaries of Nordic Noir widened with the rise of mind-blowing TV series like The Bridge (Bron/Broen), Borgen, and The Killing (Forbrydelsen). Nordic Noir distinguishing trait is its ground-breaking characters (Katrine Fonsmark, Saga Noren, and Sarah Lund are memorable female characters in TV series ever), starkly realistic and precise setting, stripped off all the crowd-pleasing sub-plots often found in American or other crime fictions. While critics feel that end is in sight for Nordic Noir wave, the Scandinavian writers keep on surprising us every year.
Iceland was a bit left out from the international success enjoyed by TV series’ from other Nordic countries. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (101 Reykjavik, Contraband, Everest) extinguished that feeling with his 10-part murder mystery series Trapped (2015- ). The series debuted in Europe last year (first Icelandic series to be released by BBC) and went on to become international hit (with at least one million Brits and 5 million French watching its 10 episodes). The huge success led to its renewal for 2nd season, set to be screened in 2018. Trapped perfectly confirms to the basic elements of Nordic Noir, attracting existing fans, and moreover Baltasar Kormakur and his team of talented writers bring their own unique sensibilities to keep things fresh.
Trapped has two central characters: one is burly, poker-faced police chief Andri Olafsson (Olafur Darri Olafsson) with small icicles clinging to his unkempt beard; and the other is bad weather assaulting the poetic landscape. The very first difference we notice between other small-town based TV series and Trapped is its punishing weather. The huge mounds of snow all around the town perfectly sets up the trap for its characters – physically and psychologically. Furthermore, watching it in this hot weather I even felt a little chill, while consuming the images of beautiful yet brutal landscape. The story is set in Siglufjordur, a breathtakingly scenic little fishing town, north of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. The people of the town have to wear heavy layers of outfit before driving or walking through the blizzard to their offices, schools or boat yards. All is definitely not well for protagonist Andri when the 1st episode begins. He is chief of police in a town, where everyone knows each other, and possibly the day-to-day duty might involve writing some parking tickets. They can cozily sit in the station with their flasks and play a game of chess. But, Andri’s marriage life is in shambles.
Andri’s house is being renovated and he is staying at his in-law’s house with two children (Perla and Thorhildur). However, Andri’s wife Agnes has requested for divorce and on that particular day she is arriving from Reykjavik with her boyfriend Sigvaldi. For the man who is still hopefully wearing his wedding ring this is very disappointing news. But Andri doesn’t show much on his face. He boards up (or traps up) all the emotional pains inside his giant physical stature. Agnes’ family home has few remainders of her dead younger sister Dagny. The episode opens with Dagny and her boyfriend Hjortur riding to an old factory for an intense session of sex. Later, Dagny is killed in a fire, whose source remains mysterious, and Hjortur survives with few burns. Meanwhile, a ferry from Denmark is arriving over the fjord. At the same time, a mangled human torso is caught in a fisherman’s nest. Andri inspects the torso in a perfect, clinical manner as if he has done it many times. Indeed, he has worked in Reykjavik and transferred to the town for reasons unknown (transferred here after the death of Dagny). Andri may have even felt a little relief for having a murder case to solve; a weird distraction from the burgeoning existential crisis.
As the Danish ferry reaches its destination the weather turns for the worst. Soon, everyone from the town’ Mayor to school children hears about the mutilated corpse. Since the corpse looks fresh and pulled from the water, the suspicion naturally falls on the members of ferry. Andri and his two subordinates (Asgeir and Hinrika) begin their investigation on the ferry. Moreover, the roads are slowly closing down due to the impending snow storm. The forensic team and higher police officials from Reykjavik couldn’t fly in. So, the townsfolk and people in the boat are trapped (including the murderer). It’s pretty much like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians situation, set in a bit wider societal canvas. We are then introduced to the town’s different colorful characters, who either inhabit the powerful or oppressed status. It now falls on Andri and his two less-experienced police officers to solve the murder case, whose list of suspects even include the Eastern European human-trafficking mafia. Before long, bodies start to pile up as the three-member police team try to get a hold over the twists and turns.
There are some unique Icelandic elements in Trapped that sets it apart from the other crime series from Norway, Sweden or Denmark. One is the formidable presence of nature, which literally dictates the narrative course. The other is found in its constant reference to 2008 Icelandic financial crisis. Although Iceland’s recovery from the economic collapse is portrayed as one of the modern miraculous story (something to learn for other countries hit by financial crisis), Trapped looks at the grass-root level impact of the crisis; on how it provoked people to use unlawful means to rejuvenate the town’s economy. The Mayor Hrafn and Reykjavik politician strives hard to coerce the locals for signing the deal with China in order to turn their sleepy town into a major port city. As we often saw in monochromatic film noir from old Hollywood, there will be crime when wealthy men with big ambitions try to realize their plan through whatever means. The frigid social and natural atmosphere in the small town perfectly elevates the noir elements and allows room for organic twists.
There are definitely some hiccups and repetitions in the narrative. The whole episode involving the Danish captain looks contrived and melodramatic. Some characters work as mere narrative device (may be there will fully evolve in the next season). The mystery looks a bit thin which could have been fully realized within eight episodes. Nevertheless, I didn’t mind watching 10 episodes (and wouldn’t have if it’s extended for another episode) especially for the atmosphere which may be exasperating to live in reality, but provides a very immersive visual experience. Olafsson's majestic presence is yet another reason to overlook the minor, understandable flaws. I also particularly liked the elegant unraveling of the murderer identity. While usually we feel relief when the killer’s identity is unmasked, we only feel a little sad here. Like the gruesome murders, the actions that led the person to commit murder remain sorrowful. Finally, staying true to Nordic crime fictions, Trapped doesn’t give up its bleakness or ineradicable emotional wounds for an impossible happy ending. Andri’s plight kind of makes you to chastise the person who first said, ‘truth sets you free’. The release of truth here only deepens the void. As Andri walks away emotionless in the last frame of the last episode there isn’t much hope. Nevertheless, this dark Icelandic tale bestows fine comfort to briefly overlook our own existential quandaries.
Trapped (2015- ) is blessed with a fabulous natural environment, richly detailed characters, and an absorbing mystery at its center. It’s a must watch for the fans of Nordic crime tales.