Fortitude episode 1 review

Sky Atlantic's brand new drama offers icebound danger, but is it any good? Here's Michael's review of Fortitude...

This review contains spoilers.

‘The one place on Earth that guarantees a quiet life… it’s the safest place on Earth’. It’s a bold statement that would tempt fate in any circumstance but in the opening episode of a mystery thriller, Governor Hildur Odegard’s quote comes across as pretty much a reckless invitation to evil. She can’t be too genre-savvy. As one of the permanent lynchpins of popular culture – particularly of the dramatic variety – the problem with crime is that it’s extremely familiar. The same beats have been trodden by thousands of feet, the same questions have been asked, the same answers sweated out. It’s all been done before.

The challenge is, how do you make it interesting? In Fortitude, scriptwriter Simon Donald’s response is to place his crime in a location in which it would be least expected. It’s an interesting variation on the ‘crime doesn’t happen here’ trope (the forthcoming Tom Hardy film Child 44 offers a slightly different take on a similar premise), and one that is heavily telegraphed throughout this initial episode. In addition to the Governor’s PR-inflected statement, we have Natalie Yelburton’s economic determinist argument that ‘everyone’s got a job, no one’s poor so there’s no crime and no stealing’. 

Both suggestions are driven more by hope than expectation. From the very beginning, Fortitude operates in an environment of frozen dread and offers a very real sense that the dawning summer is something to be feared. ‘What if there’s something that came out of the ice?’ asks Professor Stoddart. He’s talking about the mammoth remains, but there’s a heavy drop of metaphor to his words. Very heavy. Conversations between strangers, and, for that matter, between loved ones too, are freighted with menace. Dr Allerdyce, whose manner is even frostier than the glacier on which she lives, is moved to hide her true purposes from Liam’s parents even as they worry for their son’s health, Henry Tyson’s imminent demise is being met with a mixture of resignation and willing doom while Dan Anderssen, perhaps in response to the lack of crime, offers a bitter intensity to his work that could have won him few friends, a tendency that would be difficult to live with for very long in such communal isolation. 

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Taken together, these character traits help to shape a moody, baleful atmosphere that fits very well with the show’s visuals. The decision to film outdoor shots in Iceland has paid off, making the landscape almost one of the main characters. It’s staggeringly beautiful but, as the Professor hints, there’s something dark in all that whiteness. Just look at the way those heavy clouds ache towards the cold surface. The legal requirement to go around armed is not just a practical consideration (and an accurate one), but another one of those heavy metaphors. It doesn’t matter if there’s no reason to steal, there are plenty of excuses to fight.

Interpersonal tension is present from the very beginning but it’s not all good tension. The relationship between Frank and Jules is impossibly distant. Theirs is clearly a marriage in trouble, but they are so estranged as personalities that it is difficult to imagine a relationship ever existing between the pair of them, which seems to rob them of a shared past and makes the task of sympathising with their fracturing personal lives that little bit too hard. Not that Frank’s relationship with Elena comes across as any more authentic and that’s one that should still be in the initial throes of excitement. 

There may be three people in this marriage but so far, there isn’t a fully-realised person among them. They switch purposes apparently to serve the needs of the plot. Jules moves very swiftly from a sickening fear for her son’s health and a desperate need to leave the town to legging it to the pub and the metal band. And why did Liam leap up and out of his bedroom dressed only in his pyjama bottoms? The purpose seems to have been to create a kind of reverse alibi, proving Frank’s dereliction of duty and further destroying the marriage. The same could be said of Trish Stoddart’s treatment following her arrival in Fortitude. It’s just so odd. Still, it’s a mystery story and there are enough suggestions that hidden forces are at work so it wouldn’t do to press too hard at this early stage, as long as an internal consistency makes itself apparent.

In the realm of the solidly real, the conflict between the ambitious Odegard and the questing Stoddart offered a glimpse of a fascinating conflict between two people who want the best for the town but disagree on just what ‘best for the town’ means. It’s a tantalising story thread that I hope survives longer than one of its advocates.  

The killing of Christopher Eccleston’s character brings a certain moment from Game Of Thrones to mind. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of trick that only works once. Here, it seems a cheap tactic to shock but with the additional penalty of robbing Fortitude of one of its strongest presences. The handful of moments that Professor Stodart had on screen suggested a curious nature, appropriate for his line of work, and a tendency to make demands of people that they struggle to meet. 

DCI Morton, however, made a capable and interesting replacement. Stanley Tucci glided in with a smooth, confident vigour and brought an instant sense of capability. His ‘Inspector Goole of the Arctic’ role offered a welcome feeling of structure, familiar from all those previous crime dramas and added some additional questions, not least what is an American doing as a Detective Chief Inspector with the Met, but that’s something else that can be rested for the moment. I want there to be a reason for these things and I’m happy to be dragged through the snow and ice to find out. 

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