The Bridge: an unforgettable Scandinavian drama

As UK remake The Tunnel returns, we celebrate Swedish/Danish crime drama The Bridge...

Saga Noren in The Bridge
Photo: BBC Four

9pm, Saturday night, BBC Four. For the few of us who still, on occasion, watch television when it’s actually broadcast, that timeslot means only one thing: high-quality drama from outside the anglophone world. Okay, so some of the series are less impressive than others, and one or two are in English (remember Australia’s The Code?) but these are exceptions to the rule. What began as a fad, accompanied by much reductive talk of ‘Scandi noir’ and a mildly disturbing national obsession with Sarah Lund’s knitwear, has culminated in a golden age for telly addicts. Our initial resistance to subtitles has faded, and a whole world of often beautifully acted, compellingly plotted drama has opened up. We haven’t strayed very far outside Europe yet, but it’s a start.

Much of our gratitude for this revolution in our viewing habits should go to our neighbours in the north. They’ve given us, to name only a few, the legendary Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen, Bedrag (Follow The Money) – all Danish – and two distinctly different versions of the Swedish Wallander, a character we liked so much that the BBC’s made its own excellent version with Kenneth Branagh. It’d be nice to think that we might end up like the Swedes, who have been quietly watching British shows like Wire In The Blood for years without a subtitle in sight. If nothing else, we’ve picked up some new swear words…

One show in particular represents everything we’ve come to love about Scandinavian television. Bron/Broen (The Bridge), a co-production between Sweden’s Sveriges Television and Denmark’s DR, along with the German network ZDF, has given us two superb series and a third that surely ranks amongst the best television ever made. It first aired here in 2012, and quickly acquired a devoted following, just as it had back home. Two adaptations have since appeared: a Franco-British series, The Tunnel, just about to start its second series, and a recently cancelled version of The Bridge set on the US/Mexican border. Interesting though both these twists on the premise are, neither has quite captured the special atmosphere of the Scandinavian original.

The Bridge’s unique appeal lies in its settings: the city of Malmö in southern Sweden and Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, linked since 2002 by the Øresund Bridge. That impressive structure is a constant presence in the show, looming in the distance in misty daytime scenes or viewed from above at night as it carries innumerable travellers to their destinations on either side of the strait that shares its name. It brings together these two superficially similar countries, even as the cases investigated by their respective police forces throw their many subtle differences into sharp relief. No other landmarks are depicted: as Danish director Charlotte Sieling put it when describing the creative choice to omit such recognisable imagery, “in the darkness of the city we are all alike”.

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Many of the in-jokes and cultural mix-ups will be missed by foreign audiences, for whom the background to the series isn’t familiar. The mutual intelligibility between Danish and southern varieties of Swedish doesn’t always stop the leads getting their wires crossed, and the amusing stereotypes expressed on occasion by both sides are all the more intriguing when we remember that the Malmö area is located in Scania (Skåne), which was part of Denmark until the late seventeenth century, and only fully incorporated into Sweden in 1720.

In the first series, the bridge itself becomes a crime scene, when the corpse of a Swedish politician, cut in half at the waist, is discovered at the midway point between the two countries. A joint investigation begins, uniting for the first time an endearingly mismatched pair: the blunt and precise Swede, Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) and jovial, disorganised Dane Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia). The revelation that the woman’s upper body has actually been paired with the lower half of a Danish victim makes it clear from the outset that Saga and Martin are facing an unusually complicated investigation.

This mystery is rooted in Martin’s troubled personal life, and the repercussions of the appalling tragedy brought about at the case’s resolution go on to overshadow the duo’s next case. In the second series, a campaign of atrocities conducted by eco-terrorists is only the first strike in a terrifying plot to spread a deadly airborne virus at an EU climate conference in Copenhagen. Martin’s attempts to reconcile with his wife and find peace after a tragic loss founder as his life falls apart, while Saga’s forced to make a choice that sees their partnership brought to an abrupt end.

That shocking outcome left writer Hans Rosenfeldt with a difficult task ahead of him as he developed series three. A major setback was around the corner, however. Bodnia, whose warmth and humour as Martin had made him the perfect foil to Helin’s cool and complex Saga, was unhappy with the direction his character was taking and decided to leave the show. That central pairing at the heart of The Bridge had been a huge part of its success; the prospect of watching Saga alone in an often hostile and uncomprehending world was bleak indeed.

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The first episode of series three, broadcast in Britain in autumn 2015, seemed to confirm our worst fears. Saga finds herself working with a new Danish partner, Hanne Thomsen, (Kirsten Olesen) a forthright detective who doesn’t bother to conceal her dislike for her Swedish counterpart. The two women are assigned to investigate the bizarre murder of Helle Anker, a controversial educator responsible for Denmark’s first gender-neutral preschool. Her body – its heart removed – has been arranged in a grisly tableau, seated at a table surrounded by several mannequins posed to resemble a family.

Lise Friis Andersen (Sonja Richter), a vlogger who has criticised Anker in the past and whose husband owns the Malmö construction site on which the body was found, is an early suspect. Anker’s estranged son Morten (Asbjørn Krogh Nissen), a former soldier suffering from PTSD after returning from Afghanistan, also attracts the attention of the police. An ill-fated attempt to track him down takes Hanne out of the picture for good, leaving Saga without a partner.

It’s at this point that enigmatic Danish cop Henrik Sabroe (Thure Lindhardt) appears on the scene. We see him at home, leading an apparently happy family life with his wife Alice (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal) and two lovely daughters (Smilla Bak and Holly Lars Bjarke). However, all is not as it seems. Henrik goes out at night to pick up women at singles’ events, before returning home to tell Alice about his experiences. He’s as guarded and remote as Martin was cheerful and open, and the mysteries of his private life will prove to be every bit as engrossing as the case itself.

And what a case it is, with a fascinating cast of characters and a dizzying array of potential motives. We meet calculating businessman and art collector Freddie Holst (Nicolas Bro) and his wife Åsa (Anna Björk), gambler Marc (Michael Slebsager) and his long-suffering girlfriend Jeanette (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina), suave motivational speaker Claes Sandberg (Reuben Sallmander) and his superfan Annika (Louise Peterhoff), mild-mannered gallery attendant Emil Larsson (Adam Pålsson) and philandering businesswoman Anna (Melinda Kinnaman). Red herrings, false leads and misunderstandings abound, with the focus of the investigation narrowing slowly but surely until the net tightens around an oddly pitiable killer. That individual’s blighted life is the final detail in a series-long study of what a family means and why it matters, a question of immense importance both to Henrik and to Saga, who’s left reeling from the sudden reappearance of her destructive mother Marie-Louise (Ann Petrén).

Compelling as it is, the murder investigation is not what makes the third series of The Bridge such unforgettable television. Writer Rosenfeldt has done the seemingly impossible in making Bodnia’s abrupt departure seem as if it had been planned all along. Martin helps Saga deal with confusing social norms, acting as a caring older brother while learning to appreciate her refreshing straightforwardness, not a quality found in his often complicated home life. He shows her the unwritten rules of everyday interaction, and then shatters her understanding of the world by breaking the law, that fixed and intelligible system in which she has such unshakeable faith. His loss, along with that of her caring boss Hans (Dag Malmberg), is a bitter blow. Hans’s replacement, Linn (Maria Kulle) isn’t without sympathy for Saga, but struggles to find common ground with her. The unwelcome return of bungling Rasmus (Henrik Lundström) is another blow, though at least indispensable computer whizz John (Rafael Pettersson) is still around. Martin is rarely mentioned and never seen in series three, but his absence is felt at every turn.

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Rosenfeldt has said that Saga’s particular neurological make-up will never be confirmed in order to sidestep expectations on the subject, but Helin’s stated that she plays Saga as a woman on the autistic spectrum. The research she has done comes through strongly on screen, and she deserves immense credit for her sensitive, nuanced portrayal. As neurodiversity becomes more widely understood and accepted, positive depictions of autistic people are to be welcomed. The Bridge consistently avoids lazy assumptions and prejudices in the many social and political issues it tackles, and this is no exception. Saga’s deep psychological struggles are not the product of autism; they are the result of her attempts to cope with and process her appalling upbringing and resulting isolation. She is blunt, struggles with humour and finds social interaction difficult, but her intense focus, meticulous attention to detail and unfailing honesty make her easy to love. In short, she is a plausible and layered human being, without a hint of stereotype.

Creating a new character of sufficient depth and complexity to match our Saga was a tall order. Somehow, they managed it. After the bitter disappointment of Martin’s actions, Saga needs someone to understand her, someone who knows when words are not required, and who will respect her self-sufficiency and need for space. Henrik – a man who has lost everything, and who is only managing to maintain the illusion of a normal life by relying on a dangerous cocktail of drugs – is deeply troubled in ways that become heartbreakingly clear as the series progresses. The ‘will they, won’t they’ issue is settled decisively and with impressive speed, but we already know that sex, for Saga, is usually an incidental pleasure unrelated to any sort of emotional connection.

The real question here is whether these two wounded people can find their way back out of the encroaching darkness. They do, and watching that happen is a joy. No sentimentality mars the depiction of their growing bond. Henrik’s understanding of Saga is a result of his own withdrawal from what passes for normality, while her open-minded, unconventional outlook on life is exactly what he needs to move forward. It’s easy to imagine Henrik as he once was before his life descended into nightmare: kind but distant, wrapped up in his happy family. Emotional devastation has forced him into the isolation Saga has experienced throughout her life, and this sudden, intense connection will bring them both back from the edge.

Helin has been magnificent throughout the show’s run, and only continues to impress. As for Lindhardt’s wry, empathetic, fascinating Henrik, it’s now impossible to imagine The Bridge without him. The final episode of series three brings a devastating tragedy for one of them and a potentially career-ending injustice for the other. However, as they set off on another, deeply personal investigation, the future seems oddly bright. A fourth series in 2018 is all but confirmed. It’s a long wait, which leaves us plenty of time to ponder what might come next for this most memorable of couples. They face an uncertain future, having lost or given up everything that previously defined them, but they have each other.

Back to the beginning, then.