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Monitor: Thawing the Unnerving Frost of Fortitude

Aaron Yap examines how small town chiller Fortitude manages to distance itself from other mystery/crime series of a similar ilk. //

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What’s this? A beautifully shot crime drama in the moody Scandi-noir-style of The Killing and The Bridge, but infused with the enigmatic sensibilities of Lost and Twin Peaks? It’s almost like someone made Fortitude for me.

Created by Simon Donald (Low Winter Sun), Fortitude, has a strange pull beyond those reductive, though perfectly valid points of comparison. Its real coup is its unique, spectacular location – a secluded snow-blasted former mining town in Northern Norway (actually filmed in Iceland), where polar bears apparently outnumber its inhabitants. Having seen six of its twelve episodes, it’s quite clear that atmosphere and location are everything in this show. Its makers have spent a good penny – £25 million to be exact – to harness the full potential of these elements for maximum intrigue.

As with Twin Peaks and Broadchurch, a grisly murder in Fortitude serves as a trigger to awaken a sleepy community and expose the flaws and eccentricities of its people (some of them sinisterly inclined). Up to now, criminal activity has been conspicuously absent. No one knows if the town’s sheriff, Dan Andersen (Richard Dormer) is any good at his job. Fortitude is “the one place on Earth we are guaranteed a quiet life”, Governor Hildur Odegard (The Killing’s Sofia Grabol) assures a group of visitors. But the signs of a rotten underbelly are certainly there, if only the unceremonious polar bear mauling that opens the first episode, which is then followed the victim getting accidentally shot in the head.

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The melting-pot ensemble of Fortitude is one of its most fascinating qualities – the sound of those varied accents bouncing off each other takes on an off-kilter texture of its own. But it’s also somewhat dense-going in the early stages. Putting names to the bevy of supporting players and connecting their relationships, even within such a tight-knit circle, may require a bit of patience.

There’s search-and-rescue guy Frank Sutter (Nicholas Pinnock), who’s having an affair with Spanish waitress Elena (Verónica Echegui). Frank’s estranged wife Jules (Jessica Raine) is beside herself, caring for their son Liam (Darwin Brokenbro), who’s been struck down by a violent illness. Coal miners Ronnie (Johnny Harris) and Jason (Aaron McCusker) discover the frozen carcass of a mammoth, which they’re hoping to make some dough from by extorting arctic research scientist Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston). Wildlife photographer Henry Tyson (Michael Gambon) is dying from liver cancer and continues to drink himself silly. They’re all linked to the untimely death of a seemingly key character – the identity of whom I won’t reveal, since my obliviousness to the fact helped towards an unexpected shock.

During the first couple of episodes, Fortitude occasionally feels like it’s fighting against itself, struggling to forge an identity that will guarantee return viewership. Much screentime is dedicated to procedural: tense interrogations, casting red herrings and peering into hacked-up corpses for clues. It aspires to be psychological drama about characters running away, starting afresh and harbouring bitter secrets, and a vaguely sci-fi-ish show with an ecologically-conscious bent.

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Thankfully, it settles to an assured groove by mid-season, carefully juggling its thickening mystery arc and a smattering of finely judged character moments that aren’t strictly plot-driven. The familiar small town/big city cop friction between Dan and DCI Eugene Morton (the coolly pragmatic Stanley Tucci), who’s flown in from London, could’ve easily grown tedious, but they’re given quieter scenes of reflective conversation to break it up. More character time-outs like these would be welcome.

A host of questions remain, but Fortitude’s creators have acknowledged it won’t go down wheel-spinning Lost-ian tangents. There are hints at bigger developments coming in later episodes for sure – what’s with that shifty-looking Russian thug lurking around, generally doing shifty things, and the significance of the pig being strapped down in the hyperbaric chamber?

Fortitude’s central mystery may not hold the same wide appeal as aforementioned others of its ilk, but it’s already sunk its icy hooks into me. I, for one, can’t wait for that bloody mammoth to thaw out.

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The Wrap

The return of Twin Peaks is either dead or in limbo with negotiations between David Lynch and Showtime falling through… Fox’s The X-Files revival is all go though, as is Netflix’s plan to reunite to the cast of ‘80s sitcom Full House for a 13-episode season… For LOST fanatics, Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s exhaustive piece [http://okbjgm.weebly.com/lost/the-lost-will-and-testament-of-javier-grillo-marxuach] on being a writer on the show is recommended reading… Back on air this month: Mad Men (for the last time), Game of Thrones, Orphan Black.

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