The odd one out: Borgen’s place in Nordic Noir

Both Price and producer Camilla Hammerich have spoken of their surprise that Borgen traveled outside the Scandinavian countries. But with hindsight the show had several things going for it, in the UK at least. BBC Four had warmed up the 9pm Saturday audience with high-quality Scandinavian dramas like The Killing, such that a kind of Scandi-Bingo developed involving the many actors to be seen in more than one show. The UK was just a couple of years into its first coalition government since the 1940s, giving Birgitte and colleagues the edge in both sophistication and glamour over our own Cameron and Clegg. And much of the commentary seemed to gloss over the real story of the first two series: how Birgitte’s pursuit of power is at first at the cost of her own principles and family life.

For a section of the viewership, Borgen, like The West Wing before it, was an unashamed tribute to the idea of political public service, that – as the West Wing’s Toby put it, ‘government is a place where people come together’. At a time when the post-crash landscape has taken a sword to centre-left governments across Europe, and when social democratic politicians have found it impossible to sound both economically competent and inspirational, it’s hardly surprising that Birgitte’s pre-election speech about the need for authenticity in politics should be so appealing. Borgen has the advantage of, well, being television. It manages to largely ignore economic issues: even when welfare is explored it is in the context of the continued relevance of a Workers Party when the Labour movement’s demands over the decades have arguably been largely met. The dull discussions about how you balance a budget take place off-camera. There is no ideological split between the pro- and anti-austerity camps.

As Birgitte starts to lose touch with her internal compass, idealistic viewers are able to watch the continued tension between the prime minister, her adviser, and the journalists who are the moral lenses through which decisions are seen. That’s a sharp contrast against The West Wing a programme for which the word ‘bubble’ is apt with its searing speeches and triumphant endings. Borgen is all the stronger for dealing in ambiguity: the ending scenes can be described as triumphant but also as something more nuanced. Birgitte is not above the dark arts of politics, her marriage ends, she is voted out of government and has to start a new party to get back into politics. So it is disappointing to hear viewers say that Borgen is a political utopia just as they dismiss or ignore the many well-meaning and flawed politicians on their own doorstep.

Even as we’re invited to note the parallels between what happens in Borgen and in real life – the woman prime minister! The debates on prostitution! The bacon brouhaha! That word ‘utopia’ should be niggling away at the back of our minds. We are drawn to these dramas and to this literature in the knowledge that they puncture our idealistic views of Scandinavian perfection and contrast happily against reality. It’s easy, for example, to lose track about whether there have been more crimes in Icelandic reality or in Arnaldur Indridason’s writing. And although the 2015 general election indicated that the ‘Borgenisation’ of British politics is still a long way off, with the two parts of the UK coalition government receiving wildly differing rewards for their work, it isn’t clear that Denmark is really that ‘Borgenised’ either: overseas observers were baffled when the ‘winner’ of the election resigned but the ‘loser’ took office.

In another sense, to ask whether Borgen is Nordic Noir is to misunderstand the genre. The Borgen team are veterans of the Danish television tradition that also gave us The Killing. It is unsurprising that their approach to story-telling includes strong conflict, nuance, ambiguity and characterisation. These are attributes that readers and viewers value the world over – but they are also the currency of Nordic Noir. It should be unsurprising that Borgen manages to pay its membership fee to join the genre. Look out for Borgen at Nordic Noir reunions; it’s the one at the back reading Politiken.

CategoriesIssue 10
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.