Why Do the Brits Love Nordic Noir?

When The Killing (Forbrydelsen) appeared on British television screens in the Spring of 2011, a phenomenon was born. People addictively watched week after week, waiting impatiently to see who killed Nanna Birk Larsen. Unusually this waiting game was not carried out in secret or silence, instead theories and plot-lines were discussed and dissected openly among fans in a variety of places – workplaces, homes, social circles all buzzed with talk about this fascinating, foreign series. Nordic Noir quickly developed its own fandom, drawn from all levels and sections of society who were all drawn in for their own personal, as well as more generic, reasons. BBC4 were quick to make the most of this phenomenon that they had sparked, and other channels such as ITV and Sky have also jumped on the bandwagon. This has served not only to feed the need for Nordic Noir from its existing fan base, but also to grow and strengthen the fan base as we get to see more Nordic series, from a wider variety of genres, on British television, and we will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Every Brit that you ask will have their own reasons for loving Nordic Noir; for some it’s the brooding nature, or the enigmatic characters, while for others it’s the beautiful cinematography, or the high quality of the drama. The interest, obsession even, in all things Scandinavian is not new, it has a very long and rather chequered history. Back in the 1960s Scandinavian style was the height of fashion, but long before then, as far back as the Medieval era, the Vikings were setting trends – their mythology, art and Sagas still influence us today. Now it’s the turn of Nordic Noir to set the trend and we are seeing its influence in our home-grown productions.

The look and landscapes of Nordic Noir are semi-mythical to the British audience. The blue-grey toned cinematography, further en-darkened by long nights or enlightened by long days all give Nordic Noir a visual appearance of dreams or nightmares. Thanks to fairy tales and legends, to us Brits the wild, snow covered landscapes and deep fjords are home to Vikings, Trolls and other magical beings. Now it seems the Trolls have morphed into murderers who are as at home in the towns and cities of Scandinavia as they ever were in the wilderness.

When the British look North to Scandinavia, we don’t just see neighbours, we see siblings for whom we feel a great affinity. Once upon a time great swathes of what’s now the UK were under Scandinavian control or influence; Viking blood still flows in the veins of many and some Scandinavian vocabulary is still alive and well, especially in several British dialects. When we watch Nordic Noir we experience a strange yet spellbinding sense of familiarity and the strange all rolled into one. Their languages are somewhat different to ours, necessitating the need for subtitles, but odd words and even whole sentences jump out at us because they are exactly the same as our own. The situations, story-lines, tropes and the trials and tribulations of life as depicted in Nordic Noir, for example the complex and caustic family life as depicted in The Legacy (Arvingerne), are all familiar to us, providing us with a mirror to our own lives and our own society. The politics of Borgen have striking similarities to our own; both the UK and Denmark are constitutional Monarchies facing similar economic, social and political problems. Interestingly the UK got a glimpse into Denmark’s multi-party political system when we recently had a multi-party coalition government. Politics is also at the heart of many of the plots in Nordic Noir, for wherever there are people, there are politics of one kind or another.

One of the keys to understanding why the British love Nordic Noir is its serialised nature. The British do not mind waiting for weeks, months even, to find out whodunit; truthfully, we quite like being teased and turned about by the cunning plot twists of Nordic Noir. By having series that run for ten or twenty episodes these complex, slowly unfolding stories keep us hooked for weeks on end. With their intelligent writing, great acting and enigmatic drama they draw us in and maintain our attention over time. This is a stark contrast to the majority British crime dramas in which whodunits are usually resolved in one or two episodes as per the American model, although due to the influence of Nordic Noir we are now seeing serialised British crime dramas such as The Fall. This brings us to a more controversial point, in recent years the quality of English crime drama has declined – note that I say English – the crime drama being produced in the Celtic countries is still of an exceptionally high quality. The British are by our very nature big fans of both crime drama and crime fiction and Nordic Noir came at a time when our appetite for crime was not being fully satisfied by home-grown dramas.

When we look North we see a kind of ideal, or what could have been; the welfare states of Scandinavia for example are often posited as some of the best in the world. After seeing our own welfare state eroded in recent years, seeing the cracks and problems in their system, as highlighted – somewhat deceptively – in the first series of The Bridge (Broen), gives us pause for thought about the problems and nature of our own society.

Nordic Noir holds up a somewhat grey mirror to life in Scandinavia and through its fictional drama it examines the true nature of the human condition. This same mirror also effectively reflects back to the British audience the nature of life in Britain today and all the problems that we, like our Northern relatives, face. We are fascinated by our own reflection in this mirror and we seek to look deeper, into the deliciously dark void that lies beyond the glass and into the reflected world that lies beyond as we look into our own national and personal psyches, our present situations and our own shadowy pasts through the medium of Nordic Noir.

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.