Aaron Yap watches the new Scandi-crime drama Midnight Sun and finds it gross yet engrossing.
Midnight Sun is as slick, engrossing and assured a cop procedural as I’ve seen since the dawn of the Nordic Noir boom. Its top-flight craft shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the creative force behind the show is the writing/directing duo of Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, creators of Scandi-crime favourite The Bridge.
This eight-part series is arguably more ambitious than anything they’ve done thus far. Not content with simply rehashing buddy-cop formulas and serial killer tropes, the show also revolves around a socially conscious narrative that casts a fresh, if broad, spotlight on the rarely dramatised plight of Scandinavia’s native Sami people.
If you need a quick point of comparison, Midnight Sun’s closest cousin might be Fortitude, with its enthralling melange of multi-lingual speaking parts, icy, remote locations, bizarre murders and indigenous mysticism.
Things get off to a wild, shocking start with what is, at least to these eyes, the most elaborately gruesome TV death in recent memory. It’s a killer of an opening shot. We first see a close-up of a man’s dazed face (Denis Lavant). The camera slowly pulls back, revealing that he’s strapped down to the rotor blade of a helicopter that’s begun revving up. The blades spin faster and faster, until well, the only possible outcome is a painterly red smear across the screen, glimpsed from a bird’s eye view. Scarily Saw-level stuff, folks.
Mårlind and Stein never quite top the inventive grisliness of this sequence, but neither do they skimp on serving up an array of perplexing, symbol-laden deaths. Spearings, poisonings, human flayings, wolf maulings — there’s certainly enough going on to baffle the show’s True Detectives, Swedish prosecutor Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten), and French homicide investigator, Kahina Zadi (Leïla Bekhti). As the convoluted mystery thickens, a web of conspiracy emerges, one directly tied to the close-knit community of its setting Kiruna, a small Arctic mining town where the sun doesn’t set for six months a year.
Both Anders and Kahina get equally ample room to explore their inner lives beyond the job at hand. The lanky, slightly dopey Anders isn’t your typical tough-as-shit protagonist. He’s divorced. His teenage daughter thinks he’s a bit of a joke. We sense that his peers don’t respect him. His Sami ancestry also comes into play, forcing him to reconcile his cultural identity with the relentless demands of the investigation.
Kahina, on the other hand, is a bit more familiar. She comes from a long line of damaged-but-brilliant female detectives. Her psychological baggage (unresolved maternal issues, a disturbing tendency to self-harm) is heavier, darker, compounded by the alienation of being an outsider in a foreign environment. Paired together, they somehow work. I’d happily watch their strangely engaging dynamic for another season. “Bond and Quasimodo”, Anders quips.
It’s interesting to note that Midnight Sun, while initially reeling us in with a whodunnit, gradually evolves into a far more compelling why-dunnit. The history of the Samis looms large over the proceedings, inextricable from the case itself. We see a people disenfranchised, and that disenfranchisement manifesting itself in horrific, ritualistic blood vengeance. The show could be criticised for over-aestheticising Sami iconography in service of generating atmosphere, but it’s hard to deny the righteous anger bubbling beneath it all. The intentions feel genuine, and we get caught up in their impassioned call-to-arms as much as the pulpier aspects of the script.
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For the noir fan, Midnight Sun is especially striking for its inversion of the genre’s traditionally bleak, shadow-dappled textures. Recalling the 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia (and its American remake), it’s completely devoid of any nighttime scenes. There’s a dizzying, discombobulating power in excessive sunlight, and the show does a great job of harnessing it. Character emotions are intensified, perspectives challenged. In effect, it evokes a protracted waking nightmare where the more you’re able to see, the less lucid things appear to be.
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