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Below the Surface / Gidseltagningen

This is a review of the entire series and contains mild spoilers.

A twist on the typical Nordic Noir genre, Below the Surface is more a Danish thriller that follows fifteen innocent subway passengers who are taken hostage and kept caged underground in a construction site in the Copenhagen metro. The eight-part series moves between exploring the backstory of these hostage takers as well as the police officer put in charge of rescuing them. While starting as an interesting premise, much of Below the Surface feels like a very standard drama without enough excitement to make it stand out. Rather, it falls into a mix between predictable and absurd, and the actions of the main characters feel either out of place or forced.

In the first few moments of episode one, we see gunmen stop a Copenhagen subway train and force fifteen passengers through the metro tunnels into a construction site of a new station, in which they have prepared a little camp to keep themselves alive underground for an extended period of time. They lock the passengers in a cage and start making phone calls to Naja Toft, a popular television anchor in Denmark. Through her, they broadcast live-stream interviews with the various hostage takers, all while demanding a large sum of money as ransom. Meanwhile, above ground a special task force, let by Philip Nørgaard, is put in charge of dealing with the hostage situation. He’s surrounded by a supportive unit, including his girlfriend Louisa, who is an excellent negotiator. Philip regularly flashes back to a time where he himself was held hostage, and an early lead proves to him that the current situation is somehow linked to his past, though no one believes him.

The episodic structure is set to represent each day of the situation. Generally, each episode starts with a flashback to one of the hostages lives, depicting an event that will come back to them in the present day. The episode then splits its time between the above-ground effects of the task force, and the intense below-ground drama that seems to escalate as the series goes on. The central character is Philip, and his own background carries heavy weight on the overall plot. We follow him as he tries to negotiate with the hostage takers, handle his PTSD, and try to prove there is a connection to his past. Unfortunately, the character comes across as too one-dimensional to become invested in; his background not fleshed out enough and his love story with Louisa forced. Another major part of this story is Naja Toft, the journalist with direct and influential contact to the hostage takers. Not only does she start to influence the situation for her own gain, but she also becomes involved in a crowd-funding campaign to raise ransom money, a campaign that was started by the desperate family members of the hostages. All of these plotlines crash together in the second last episode, with the last episode focusing on a resolution.

With such a strong group of writers behind the series (it’s created by the same creators as The Killing and Borgen), it’s a shame that Below the Surface feels so conventional and predictable. The journalist Naja Toft is the most troublesome character; her actions and her trust by the police becomes irritating and her character just seems to continuously make the situation worse. With regards to the police, they seem to spend most of their time sitting around rather than doing anything, and some decisions they make in episodes 6-7 just don’t seem realistic. Besides the hostages, all the female characters become romantically attached to a man in some way. The negotiator does not need to be in love with our leading man, and the journalist does not need to fall in love (or rather lust) with a central character.  There are thrilling and exciting moments in Below the Surface, and the acting done by the hostages makes the below-ground scenes the best. The series does raise some important issues like PTSD and Denmark’s strict policy against paying ransoms, and these themes are much stronger than the main plotline. This series doesn’t hook you in like other major crime dramas, but it is entertaining and worth watching from start to finish.

This review is in the March issue of Cinema Scandinavia. 

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Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.