The third season of The Bridge has just finished on BBC4, which claimed 1 million viewers for the opening of its most popular show. As usual BBC4 showed double episodes (2 x 60 mins) over 5 weeks. This latest serial was broadcast more or less simultaneously in Sweden/Denmark but in 1 hour slots. I have tried to avoid SPOILERS in what follows, but if you want to know nothing at all about the serial before you start watching, please wait until you have seen several episodes before reading on.
The first observation is that Serial 3 is up to the high standard of the first two and stands alongside Borgen and 1864 as the best Danish dramas and Wallander as the best of Swedish drama. For readers who have no knowledge of The Bridge I should point out that Serial 1 began with a body – or rather two halves of two different bodies, one Swedish and one Danish – deposited at the halfway-point of the Oresund road bridge between Sweden and Denmark. This prompted a joint investigation by Swedish and Danish police led by unique characters who also featured in Serial 2. One of the two, Martin (Kim Bodnia), has since been imprisoned – arrested by his Swedish counterpart, Saga (Sofia Helin). I won’t spoil Serial 2 by explaining why.
In Serial 3 Saga must work with a new Danish partner on another cross-border case. One new partner only lasted one episode but since then, the introduction of Henrik (Thure Lindhardt) has created a new central relationship recalling the best of Saga and Martin. Saga is very much to one end of the autism spectrum. A brilliant investigator, she has virtually no sense of empathy or any of the usual social or ‘people skills’. Henrik is suffering from the disappearance of his wife and small children some six years earlier and although his social skills are fine, his night-time behaviour is dominated by memories of his family.
The USPs of The Bridge are its two central characters and its extremely convoluted plots which introduce an array of characters seemingly unconnected who will ultimately be ‘tied in’ or, in some cases, later dropped. I can’t see any viewer guessing who did it from the beginning, since after six episodes it still isn’t clear what has ‘been done’ – or whether it has all been done yet. What we begin to realise is that like the original crime fiction ideas of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the central crime in The Bridge 3 is in some ways connected to ideas about the social democratic state and the ways it becomes involved in social care, childcare, social legislation about single-sex couples etc. And that this is linked in some way to a wealthy businessman and art collector. It isn’t exactly a new idea, but here the intertwining of the investigators’ home lives/family affairs and the crimes they are investigating is intriguing.
We’ve grown used to Saga’s ‘rational’ ways of pursuing the bad guys and her cold, detached manner with witnesses and the bereaved (not to mention her approach to her own sexual appetite), but this time Saga is made to look if not quite ‘vulnerable’, at least ‘disturbed’ by new factors. One of these is the incapacity of her tolerant boss and his temporary replacement by a hard-faced and ‘by the book’ female officer in full uniform. This is Linn who then attempts to get Saga to reconcile herself with the parents that she has shunned because of what she believes was abuse towards her and her sister. Linn’s intervention doesn’t go well. Meanwhile Henrik has his own problems – not least his own nocturnal habits as he tries to compensate for his lost family. The ‘families’ involved in each of the murders emphasise the difficulties faced by Saga and Henrik. Perhaps ‘Happy Families’ would have been a neat ironic title for the whole series.
The reasons why these drama serials and series from Scandinavia are so popular in the UK are several. One is because of the high standard of writing (the team led by Hans Rosenfeldt), production and performances. Stars of film and stage appear frequently. In this serial the first few episodes feature Sonja Richter, a stalwart of Danish cinema, as a ‘vlogger’ who operates like the columnists of the Daily Mail in the UK, stirring up hatred. She’s married to Lars, played by Olaf Johannessen who has appeared in Those Who Kill, The Killing 3, Borgen and 1864. Nicholas Bro one of my favourite Danish actors (The Killing, 1864 and numerous films) appears as the art-owning business man in The Bridge. Anyone in the UK interested in Sofia Helin should also look up one of the Swedish film Dalecarlians (Masjävlar, 2004) available in the UK on a DVD from Drake’s Avenue – a very different kind of film which shows off her versatility. Actually it’s not that different I suppose since it concerns a young woman at odds with her family and her roots in rural Central Sweden.
UK audiences are also attracted by the insights offered into two different Scandinavian cultures (although in this third serial, there seems to be much more about Swedish rather than Danish culture). The Guardian‘s weekly blog recapping on each episode includes many comments about language use, Scandinavian interior design etc. and this is matched by other broadsheet newspapers. The Bridge also has its own distinctive ‘look’ – fundamentally noir. My impression is that there is a greater use of long shots and this was very noticeable in the final episode. Unlike purely Danish serials like Borgen or 1864, The Bridge appears to be shot in straight 16:9 rather than wider and potentially more cinematic ratios. I noted some beautiful framings followed by some which seemed compromised by the lack of width. Having said that, I realised also that my reference point was 1940s noir shot in the squarer 1.33:1 ratio. Interiors are also ‘disturbed’ by the use of tricks like the use of glass-walled rooms inside the Swedish police headquarters. The third serial features many more scenes in which Saga retreats to her own glass box or is ‘invited in’ to Linn’s.
Overall, however, the biggest attraction offered by The Bridge is its array of characters headed by Saga and Henrik. Saga is so well-established after two seasons that much of the pleasure in following the character is seeing her being extended and challenged. Henrik by contrast is a revelation. His presence is very different to that of Martin as played by Kim Bodnia. I didn’t recognise Thure Lindhardt, even though I had seen him recently in a minor part in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (2012) and earlier as the co-lead in the hugely successful Danish wartime resistance film Flammen & Citronen (2008) with Mads Mikkelsen. One aspect of the new pairing is that the two actors are given costumes with similar features. Both look ‘on edge’, tense and tightly-wound, yet also world-weary. Henrik is as disturbed as Saga and it is quite moving when they support each other, despite Saga’s usual demeanour. The apparitions that Henrik sees reminded me of J-horror from around 2000 – and I was pleased to see them back.
The investigation of the crimes is completed half-way through the final episode and the last 30 minutes or so ponder upon what has happened to the two central characters and what the future holds. There are enough unresolved aspects of the mini-narratives involving different characters that it seems inevitable that another serial will follow. I hope so. The Bridge is a beacon of intelligent television in the midst of grey conformity.