Marshland review

The acclaimed Spanish detective noir Marshland finally arrives in the UK. It has been well worth the wait...

Two homicide detectives wade through the existential and geographical bog of Andalusia’s wetlands in Marshland, a Spanish language box office hit that rides a tidal wave of critical acclaim into English-speaking markets.

Directed by Alberto Rodríguez, the film won ten Goyas at this year’s Spanish Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Director and has drawn comparisons with the HBO series True Detective and the Argentine Oscar winner The Secret In Their Eyes. In short, it’s a detective noir that doesn’t pull any punches, in which the Spanish sunshine is no respite from the darkness.

The film is set in 1980, during a transitional period of Spain’s history as the post-Francoist modernisation of the government and economy brought about a push towards democracy. Two detectives from Madrid are busted down from their city jobs to a backwater town on the Guadalquivir marshes and they’re not ideal partners.

Idealistic expectant father Pedro Suárez (Raúl Arévalo) is being punished for publicly criticising a general, and he’s dismayed by the older, less progressive Juan Robles, (Javier Gutiérrez) who came up under the fascist state – he repeatedly accuses the outwardly affable detective of wishing things were more like they used to be.

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But the two of them must put their differences aside when their hunt for two missing girls reveals a serial killer stalking the community. Their only lead is a singed photo negative, but Juan and Pedro must find the heartless predator who is entrapping teenage girls before he claims another victim.

The film opens with a title sequence comprising aerial shots of the marshes that provide the setting. These stunning shots recur throughout the film at key moments and cinematographer Álex Catalán’s and editor José Moyano work in tandem in making the setting seem both vast and claustrophobic. As far as police work goes, the oppressive heat and light of the climate doesn’t go with the huge area that our two detectives must comb in search of the truth, but it does make for an inscrutable and intense atmosphere from the outset.

The socio-political climate is even more uncomfortable. Although the two girls, sisters Carmen and Estrella, are not the first to go missing, they’re the first with any notable family ties to get the authorities interested in investigating. Of the townspeople, only the girls’ mother cooperates with the investigation in any useful way, slipping Juan and Pedro some useful leads after her indifferent husband has left the room.

The town’s deep-rooted misogyny and intolerance feeds into the difficulty of the investigation, with many of the killer’s desperate victims having been taken in by the promise of a job and the possibility of getting out of their backwater town. In the eyes of the townspeople, it’s more likely that the girls’ loose morals have gotten them into trouble in the big, bad world, and their apathy frustrates the viewer as much as the protagonists.

Gutiérrez won the Goya for Best Actor for his charismatic turn as Juan, who seemingly wrestles with insomnia by night, while either turning on the charm or quickly resorting to using force in his work. His performance is impressive, with Arévalo’s Pedro serving as a crucial foil.

A local journalist (Manolo Solo) offers as much frustration as assistance, insisting on quid pro quo from Pedro as he helps him to chase the lead of the photo negatives. He also claims to recognise Juan from somewhere, feeding the younger detective’s suspicions and investigation of his partner on the side, culminating in a harrowing revelation from out of the film’s murky political subtext.

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By the same token, there are a couple of sub-plots that come up short because of the film’s unforthcoming tone, including a mystery ailment that keeps Juan up at night. You might also point out that there’s an almost off-hand dismissal of female characters given that this is a film about the murder of women, but that’s sadly expected of this kind of fare.

The action is largely talky, although there are a couple of superb setpieces thrown in for good measure. The final rain-soaked confrontation is stunning and one of the film’s few night-time sequences tees up an intense car chase that includes the most chilling single shot of them all, in a work almost entirely comprised of hauntingly beautiful shots.

The comparisons to HBO’s surly flagship drama are certainly well-founded, although we can’t tell if that will diminish or enhance the temptation to give it the old American-language remake, with a requisite transfer from the Spanish to the American Deep South. The Secret In Their Eyes is getting that treatment later this year, with Billy Ray directing Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts.

Whether Marshland follows suit within the next few years, there’ll always be the roundly downbeat original, with all of its oppressive and uncomfortable brilliance. It’s a seedy but undeniably effective procedural thriller that looks incredible and never lets up until the last moment. If you’re amongst those who’ve felt let down by the second season of True Detective, this could be the utterly suffocating fix of excellence that you need.

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4 out of 5