I was surprised and delighted when five Beck films were picked up by the BBC and broadcast recently on BBC4. The first film I watched was enjoyable and entertaining but it seemed to miss the most important element of the famous series of books – the critique of Swedish society. However, I’ve watched four more and these new films have now definitely won me over.
Martin Beck is important as arguably the first protagonist of what has for the last seven or eight years become known as ‘Nordic Noir’ in the UK and elsewhere. (I’m sure it has been called something slightly different in Scandinavia for several years.) The ten novels by the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (living together as a couple) were written between 1965 and 1975. All ten novels were adapted for the cinema, some outside Sweden. (I discuss Bo Widerberg’s 1976 Beck film The Man On the Roof here.) The earliest film adaptations featured different actors playing Martin Beck but a series of six Swedish-German films in 1993-4 all featured Gösta Ekman as Beck. The current sets of films began in 1997 and (like the later Wallander films) are new stories using the central characters. Per Wahlöö died in 1975 and Maj Sjövall has not to my knowledge written any more Beck stories, so the 30 films since 1997 all use new stories.
The importance of the original 10 novels was that the writers, Marxists both, attempted to offer a critique of Swedish society. This meant a level of realism in the police procedural and a level of political awareness and moral commitment by Beck himself. This in turn inspired later writers such as Henning Mankell (who wrote an introduction for the most recent UK translation of the first Beck novel Roseanna first published in 1965). And it was this element that I thought was missing in the first of the films broadcast by BBC4. I realise now that this was the last film of ‘Series 4’ from 2009. In Sweden the 90 minute films have tended to go straight to DVD with only occasional theatrical releases, though I believe the more recent films have appeared first on TV in Sweden.
The four later BBC4 screenings are of the 2015 films from Series 5. Beck is played (as in all 30 films) by Peter Haber, a veteran Swedish actor in TV and film, best known outside the country perhaps for the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in which he played Martin Vanger. Haber is perfectly cast as Beck, embodying the character introduced in Roseanna all those years ago. The others in the team have been ‘updated’ and Beck now leads a team of five. His right-hand man is Gunvald Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt), almost the polar opposite of Beck but also complementary – someone decisive, cool under pressure but perhaps too quick to act, even if he is often shown to be correct. The two officers who do most of the leg-work are Oscar and Jenny and at the start of the fifth series, a new member is introduced in the form of Ayda, a young ‘civilian’ brought in as a research and IT expert. Ayda might be seen as the indicator of the influence of the recent explosion of female investigators in Scandinavian crime fiction. Her character’s name (Ayda Çetin) suggests that she is from a Turkish migrant background. She speaks several languages and is clearly adept in both IT skills and police/intelligence procedures. When they first meet there is a potential clash with Gunvald (because Ayda is not a police officer) which Beck quickly attempts to avert. The script seems to be pointing towards a future narrative involving Gunvald and Ayda.
In the third film of Series 5, Oscar is developed as a character partly through the coincidence that his wife is in the final stages of pregnancy at the same time as one of the characters in the case the team is investigating. Oscar is being teased, especially by Gunvald. He is a ‘new man’ in many ways and perhaps he is a little naive but he is a reliable and competent police officer. All this comes into focus when Jenny is asked about what it is like to work on the team. She then gives her own analysis of what might happen when Beck retires and each of the others ‘moves up’ a place. She seems quite happy that she will then be third out of four and a new member will be the junior. I realised at this point that I had become much more aware of the individual characters in the team and I was getting much more out of the show. The stories too seemed to be developing much more in line with how the novels had originally worked out. I should also mention that another new character in Series 5 is the new head of the whole police operation. This is Klas Fredén and he seems a familiar character from procedurals anywhere. He’s much younger than Beck and very managerial with arrogance and a ‘touchy-feely’ manner. Significantly he is immediately shown to be completely wrong in over-ruling Gunvald – again perhaps foreshadowing future developments.
Martin Beck is a wonderful character who is gentle and understanding but still an efficient cop who doggedly sticks to his task and solves crimes through hard work rather than flashes of genius. The critique is not direct but the crimes are contextualised in terms of recognisable human behaviour and not something fantastical. I’d very much like to see more of the thirty films please BBC4. In the meantime the arrival of The Bridge 3 is eagerly awaited.
Nordic Noir TV films are discussed in Chapter 9 of The Global Film Book.