Scandinavia is the home of gritty crime drama these days. Crime writers seem compelled to play their parts in exposing the seedy underbellies of the apparently socially just Scandinavian countries, showing that it’s not all IKEA, saunas and socialism, but murder, squalor and misery too.
Much of the region’s reputation was formed on novels from the likes of Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell, many of which have been adapted into TV shows and movies. The latest series hoping to translate to a successful film franchise is Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series, of which The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first instalment.
It’s protagonist is Detective Carl Morck, a man who ticks all the boxes in the onscreen detective checklist. He’s haunted by a case which went disastrously wrong, and for which he blames himself. He drinks too much. His personal life is a disaster “ his ex-wife barely speaking to him, and his stepson flirting with juvenile delinquency. His relationships with his colleagues are strained as they loathe his impatience, arrogance and contempt of their shortcomings. He’s obsessed with his work and unable to switch off. But of course, he’s a Damned Fine Detective, when it comes down to it.
Damned Fine Detective he may be, but after the disastrous case that led to his partner being paralyzed, Carl is removed from the homicide division and, to his disgust, exiled to a desk job in Department Q, a newly formed division aimed at reviewing cold cases. Here, he teams up with the department’s only other employee, Assad, a more laid-back character who enjoys playing loud Arabic hip hop in the basement they’ve been assigned and sees the job as a fine new opportunity. It’s inevitable that these contrasting characters will form an unlikely but successful partnership, but nonetheless it’s nicely handled, with gentle humour and sharp dialogue.
In fact, there are very few surprises for viewers of The Keeper of Lost Causes, but that doesn’t prevent the film from holding your attention throughout. Naturally Carl has very little respect for authority, so instead of the cursory review of case notes that his superiors expect of him, he goes about fully re-opening a woman’s disappearance from five years previous, which he suspects has more to it than the original investigation uncovered. This investigation forms the heart of the film, as the two detectives use their differing approaches (Carl intuitive and impatient and Assad more deliberate and thoughtful) to develop leads in various directions.
Their investigation takes them into some dark places, heightened by the gloomy, though impressive cinematography. And while the story presents a fairly bleak view of society and presents some appalling crimes, it doesn’t seem to revel in them in the way that made the ˜Dragon Tattoo’ series feel so queasy at times. The Keeper of Lost Causes is essentially a workmanlike crime thriller, but one that is handled well “ with fine pacing and visuals, and solid performances from Scandi-drama alumni (lead man Nikolaj Lie Kaas was in The Killing so is familiar with this kind of thing).