Grim up north

Two new Nordic dramas reveal a darker side to Scandi paradise

On Television

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Think of the Nordic countries and what comes to mind? Doubtless an enlightened social democrat paradise where women enjoy more equal rights than anywhere else in the world. The 2021 Global Gender Gap report, for example, published by the World Economic Forum, certainly seems to confirm this. The report lists the countries judged most successful in moving towards gender parity. Iceland is number one, followed by Finland and Norway.

If this is the case, then clearly nobody has told the high-powered lawyers in Witch Hunt (Heksejakt in Norwegian), a new legal thriller series set in Oslo. Witch Hunt, available on Channel 4’s excellent Walter Presents sub-channel, takes us into a corporate world riddled with corruption, intimidation, crass sexism and institutionalised misogyny. This eye-opening eight-part series about power, crime and dirty money is enthralling viewing. Witch Hunt also shows that however smug its sleek Norwegian lawyers are, when their interests are threatened, they will fight as dirtily as anyone else. 

There are echoes here of Bad Banks, a German series about financial corruption

Ida Waage, marvellously played by Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, is the chief financial officer at Biermann and Gude, a high-end law firm. A mysterious invoice arrives for €450,000. Ida asks repeatedly for paperwork so she can sign it off, which never appears. The more questions she asks, the fewer answers she gets. 

It soon becomes clear that Ida is being stonewalled because the trail leads to Peer Eggen, a powerful Norwegian businessman trying to buy the state energy company. Ida suspects, rightly, that she is being asked to authorise some kind of money-laundering operation. But Eggen is a client, and his lawyer is the tall, handsome and coldly menacing Jan Gunnar Askeland, brilliantly played by Preben Hodneland.

Jan Gunnar has no compunction about destroying Ida’s career or that of anyone who stands in his way. Meanwhile, Aida Salim, a dogged reporter, is digging into Eggen’s affairs while the Justice Minister and her husband are entangled in the dark nexus of power and corruption. Birgitte, a young female colleague of Ida’s, is also in the firing line. When she tries to stand up to Jan Gunnar, she is sexually harassed, intimidated and assaulted. We long to see Birgitte, like Ida, fight back. But she buckles, knowing resistance will end her career. There are echoes here of Bad Banks, a German series about financial corruption, and the excellent Danish show Follow The Money, both of which dramatise the dark side of northern Europe’s business and financial worlds. 

Beyond the absorbing storyline and fine performances, Witch Hunt’s real strength is its finely crafted portrayal of how, even in a supposedly enlightened country, those who stand up for what is right risk having their lives destroyed. 

Ida is steadily marginalised and then excluded, as her colleagues abandon her one by one. Her career collapses. The pressure and menace spills over into her family life, straining her marriage and her relationship with her children. She keeps on fighting and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal gives a stand-out performance in the climactic court-room scene. The end is both nuanced and realistic.

The 10-part series switches deftly between Norway and numerous locations in Israel

In The Girl From Oslo, the girl in question is Pia, played by Andrea Berntzen, who travels from Oslo to the Sinai desert to hang out with her Israeli friends. It all looks chilled and idyllic until the trio are abducted by Isis. 

The terrorists offer to release the hostages in exchange for Isis prisoners in Israel and Norway. Some of the storyline follows predictable lines: armed rescue attempts, drone footage, long meetings around government tables and shouting. And be warned, one episode, where the hostages are paraded in front of an Isis video camera is shut-your-eyes brutal. 

But there are more subtle currents here, which make for rewarding viewing in this intelligent and ambitious international Norwegian-Israeli co-production, especially the interplay between the emotional impact of the hostage-taking and the geo-political backdrop, both current and historical. 

Anneke von der Lippe in The Girl from Oslo

The 10-part series switches deftly between Norway and numerous locations in Israel. The characters speak in Norwegian, Hebrew, Arabic and English and the cast includes Arab and Jewish Israelis, Norwegians and Palestinians, all of which add extra layers of authenticity. 

Alex, Pia’s diplomat mother, played by Anneke von der Lippe, travels to Israel to meet Arik, an Israeli politician, and Layla, an Arab doctor in Gaza. They all last saw each other in the heady days of the early 1990s, before the 1993 Oslo Accords. Alex soon explains to Arik that their time in Oslo also left a very personal legacy. 

Meanwhile in Gaza, Layla, superbly played by Raida Adon, is horrified to discover that her son Yusuf, played by the very talented Shadi Mar’i (last seen in Fauda) is one of the Isis terrorists. The Gaza scenes feel completely authentic, as Layla tries to save her son while navigating a path through the deadly internecine politics of the Hamas regime. 

The cinematography is often superb with the Negev and Arava deserts in Israel standing in for Sinai (which is now part of Egypt), their barren landscapes shifting through a palette of colours and tones under the blinding sunlight.

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