A Bergmanesque miasma of gloom hangs over every episode in this new Scandinavian thriller
This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Back in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of collapse, I found myself in a bar in Leningrad, as the city was then still. Mikhail Gorbachev — remember him? — had decreed an anti-alcohol campaign, but there was no shortage of beer and vodka in the homely tavern where we settled down for the evening.
The people-watching was engrossing. The atmosphere in the city was quite different to that of closed, claustrophobic Moscow. Leningrad looked out to the sea, to Scandinavia, the locals seemed better dressed, more open-minded. By far the most fascinating customers were a quartet of Finns who sat down nearby, fresh off the ferry from Helsinki. They ordered vodka, and steadily downed shot after shot, until one after another they slumped forward, with their heads resting on the table.
The camera moves in on characters staring moodily into the distance as their domestic lives collapse
This was an impressive display, especially as it was achieved in near-silence. There were no loud jokes, yelling, fun, excitement nor the faintest hint of potential violence — just a slow and steady march towards temporary oblivion. After watching this I finally understood the classic Finnish joke: Two Finns meet in a bar. One asks the other, “How was your day?”. His friend replies, “Are you here to talk, or here to drink?”
There are not a lot of jokes in Bullets, the evocative Finnish conspiracy thriller series now available on Walter Presents, Channel 4’s consistently excellent showcase for international drama. Bullets is made by the team behind The Bridge and The Killing, two of the most high-profile recent Scandi noir crime TV series.
We have seen plenty of Sweden and Denmark in the recent burst of Scandi dramas, so it’s pleasing to see Helsinki finally take centre stage.
Naturally, there are some similarities between Bullets and its better-known predecessors. Like Saga Noren, the lead character in The Bridge, Mari Saari, the protagonist of Bullets, is emotionally damaged, although her people skills are marginally more developed than Saga’s.
A Bergmanesque miasma of gloom hangs over every episode. There are plenty of long tracking shots of night-time cityscapes. The camera moves in on characters staring moodily into the distance or watching grainy covert CCTV footage as their domestic lives collapse. All of this is now so familiar as to be comforting.
What lifts Bullets are its complex characters, an engrossing storyline and superb performances by Krista Kosenen as Mari, and Sibel Kekilli — best-known for her role as Shae in Game of Thrones — as Madina Taburova, one of the world’s most wanted international terrorists.
Mari is an undercover officer in an elite unit of the state security service, charged with preventing terrorist attacks. Madina lived a normal life as a wife and mother until she witnessed the murder of her husband Aslan by soldiers in the Caucasus. She fled their home, handed over her baby to aid workers and became a recruiter and groomer of female suicide bombers.
The authorities believe Madina is dead until she turns up in Helsinki, where she claims political asylum under a false name — and where her daughter Alba is now being raised by a Finnish family. But is Madina there for a family reunion, or something more sinister? As the series runs for ten 60-minute episodes, we may safely assume the latter.
The story jumps back and forth between the violence in the Caucasus more than a decade ago and present-day Helsinki, with side-trips to Brussels’s criminal underworld of people smugglers and drug dealers. The series does not try to make us sympathise with Madina, but it does make an intelligent attempt to show how the life of an everyday woman can take such a dark path.
Mari’s mission is to befriend Madina to find out her plans. Herself an orphan, completely friendless after the murder of her colleague, Mari has erected a wall around herself to guard from emotional entanglements. At the same time, she still yearns to connect. Eventually she starts a relationship with the father of a young child — thus putting them both in danger.
Don’t be put off by the Scandinavian melancholy — this is intelligent, thought-provoking drama from an accomplished team
It seems Mari’s only real relationship is with her boss, Tuomi, whose long hair and taste for flowing dresses and robes have more than a hint of Games of Thrones about them. But even that connection is transactional. Meanwhile, Mari’s entanglement with Madina is becoming more layered and more complicated — in other words, more human. Both women show courage and even a kind of loyalty to each other even as Mari tracks Madina through a secret CCTV system in her flat.
The scripting is first-class, and the scenes where Madina slowly grooms her next initiates, who may include her own daughter, are chilling. After a slight lag in the middle, the story picks up rapidly in the last few episodes and builds to a gripping — and shocking — climax.
I won’t spoil it here, but suffice to say that the final episode has a very neat plot twist about Mari and Tuomi’s back story, with a memorable line from Mari that lingers long after the credits. Don’t be put off by the Scandinavian melancholy — this is intelligent, thought-provoking drama from an accomplished team.
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