Walter’s Arctic Circle is a winner

Welcome to a kaleidoscopic showcase of topical dramas in vivid settings

On Television

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I’m becoming an ever more loyal devotee of Walter Presents, the sub-channel on Channel Four devoted to European crime and thrillers. Walter curates a kaleidoscopic showcase of topical dramas in vivid settings. In the first season of Arctic Circle, Nina Kautsalo, a Finnish detective, finds a dying Russian prostitute in the wilds of Lapland. When a deadly virus is found in her blood, a much wider threat soon manifests.

Season two, tighter at six rather than ten episodes, continues the theme of cross-border crime and Finnish-Russian police cooperation (or lack of it). A clique of international billionaires, part of a sinister historical brotherhood, has gathered at a remote Russian hunting lodge. There they keep their prisoners alive in the basement until they are released into the woods to be hunted down.

It’s not very sporting — the victims are dressed in a bright yellow suit and have trackers implanted under their skin. As these are some of the world’s worst criminals, however, so far unpunished but now kidnapped, they deserve their fate, the hunters argue.

Once again Iina Kuustonen delivers a powerhouse performance as the cop who will stop at nothing to see justice done — aided by Viktor Zujev, a gay, honest Russian detective, convincingly played by Maxim Busel. This time it’s personal for Nina. The hunters’ prey is innocent — a Finnish man judged guilty of a high-profile murder he did not commit, a killing that leads Nina back to her own estranged father.

The scenery is spectacular and the fight sequences world-class. Beyond the electric storyline, gorgeous visuals and edge-of-the-seat action, Arctic Circle delves deeply into age-old themes of sin, redemption and familial love — nowhere more than in the portrayal of Nina’s relationship with her daughter Venla, a child with special needs, movingly played by Venla Ronkainen. Complex and ambitious, Arctic Circle moves back and forth between Nina’s family dramas and the sinister hunters’ conspiracy. All the loose ends are smartly tied up in the enthralling, satisfying finale.

As someone who spent more than 20 years reporting on central and eastern Europe, I was much looking forward to The Regime, the blockbuster new political satire set in an unnamed Mitteleuropean country, showing on Now TV. Kate Winslet plays Chancellor Elena Vernham, a neurotic, germophobic dictator whose dead father, like Lenin, still lies preserved in a glass case.

Kate Winslet in The Regime

Vernham, who calls her beleaguered subjects “my loves”, shares a first name with Elena, the wife of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. She oversees a similar reign of sentimental terror, steering a path between the United States and China, wrangling over natural resources and trade deals. Her ministers must suck mints before each cabinet meeting.

There is enormous dramatic potential here to explore the sticky legacy of communism — and how much that was layered onto the region’s pre-existing authoritarian tendencies. That would demand challenging storylines and complex characters, though. Instead, the series serves up unfunny camp comedy and clichés. Vernham may terrify her subjects but she appears to be deranged, which makes her cartoonish and annoying. This Regime is already crumbling.

The director Guy Ritchie does one thing very well indeed: the gangster caper. The key ingredients are menacing but undeniably stylish British mobsters, foreign hoodlums muscling in on the action, sporadic bursts of ultra-violence and sexy love interests, all laced with black humour and, typically, a sharp performance from former footballer Vinnie Jones.

The Gentlemen, Ritchie’s new eight-part series now showing on Netflix, is a spin-off from his 2019 film of the same name and ticks all the right boxes.

Eddie Horniman, an engaging Theo James, inherits his family estate over the head of his older brother, Freddy, a dissolute, useless drug addict. The family legacy is not quite what it seems, though: the house and the estate are funded by an enormous underground cannabis farm.

Eddie wants out, of course. But disentangling the Hornimans from their business partner, the Glass crime dynasty, is more complicated than it seems — especially when Susie Glass, marvellously played by Kaya Scodelario, makes it clear that there is no exit option.

Eddie’s path has echoes of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Corleone evolves, unwillingly at first, from all-American hero into a ruthless mafia don. After a while, it’s not clear that Eddie really does want to go straight.

He turns into a deft and surprisingly accomplished mobster. But then the skills that make a good army officer — functioning under extreme pressure, taking life or death decisions, sacrificing the unlucky and being unfazed by gushing blood — transfer quite neatly to the world of organised crime.

The settings are lush. The Gentlemen was filmed at Badminton House, the ancestral home of the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort. The interplay between the upper-class Hornimans and the criminal (literal) underworld is nicely handled. Each is fascinated with the other.

Several over-the-top scenes of gory violence pay a not very subtle homage to Quentin Tarantino.

There is plenty of black, sometimes even surreal humour, but The Gentlemen also explores more serious themes of love, loyalty and Britain’s class system which, centuries ago, gifted the aristocrats their lands and riches.

Ritchie subtly ramps up the sexual tension between Eddie and Susie. The posh boy and the gangster girl are clearly attracted to each other. But Susie soon makes it clear that sex is off the menu, telling Eddie that she does not “shag the help”, thus neatly showing who is in charge. Does she in the end? You’ll have to watch the series to find out. It’s a fun ride.

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