Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Thou shalt knit kill

An attractive young woman is murdered: the investigation into her death exposes deep corruption among the local power elites, and pushes those tasked with finding her killer into emotional meltdown. I’m talking, of course, about Forbrydelsen, aka The Killing, the Danish TV noir that’s made Fair Isle jumpers almost cool.

But it’s also the basic plot of Twin Peaks: for Nanna Birk Larsen in the boot of a car, read Laura Palmer in a plastic sheet; for Sarah Lund’s obsession for justice, there’s Dale Cooper’s descent into doughnut-fuelled madness. The two shows also share a structure in which each episode represents one day in the investigation. And the inevitable US remake of The Killing transfers the action from Copenhagen to Washington state, the setting for Lynch’s deranged masterpiece.

Talking of remakes, remember State of Play? A journalist played by John Simm (or, if you prefer, Russell Crowe) finds his loyalties torn when Sonia, the researcher/lover of his politician friend David Morrissey (or Ben Affleck), dies in mysterious circumstances, with all fingers pointing to a ruthless conspiracy of government and business interests.

State of Play in turn was clearly influenced by the 80s drama Edge of Darkness, in which a policeman, Craven, played by Bob Peck (Mel Gibson in the unnecessary remake) seeks the killer of his activist daughter; the money/power nexus in this case having modish nuclear overtones, which combine with Craven’s own grief and obsession, and ultimately destroy him. The writer’s original intention, to have Craven demonstrate his eco-credentials by turning into a tree, was thwarted in the broadcast version, but is it too fanciful to see this as a precursor to Lynch’s Log Lady?

And, for the real geeks, how about the first season of Steven Bochco’s Murder One, in which the death of 15-year-old party girl Jessica Costello draws unwelcome attention to the activities of too-smooth plutocrat Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci) and ultimately wrecks the marriage of attorney Ted Hoffman (Daniel Benzali)? Like Twin Peaks, Murder One was ultimately stymied by the network’s convinction that viewers didn’t have the intelligence and/or attention span to follow such a complex plot; in common with The Killing, later episodes begin with a plot recap that actually confuses more than it explains.

Several other things unite the five shows. One is the definite sense of place in each one: the rainy, dark glumness of Copenhagen; the lonely claustrophobia of Twin Peaks; London’s grimy bustle; the Yorkshire Moors and their brutal beauty; the nasty gloss of Los Angeles. Partly because of this, the identity of the killer isn’t ultimately the most important thing in any of the stories. Like the inhabitants of David Simon’s Baltimore, or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, the victims and killers and investigators and avengers are essentially the playthings of their environment.

And in each of the five narratives, the victim is barely a character in her own right: each woman exists simply to be killed, like a virgin bred for sacrifice. Only Emma Craven (Joanne Whalley), in Edge of Darkness, has a chance to register her own identity before she is gunned down. And yet each one reaches out beyond the grave: Nanna, Sonia and Jessica have each been captured on video, offering significant evidence to those seeking to solve their murders; Emma reappears in ghostly form, like an incestuous Cathy to her father’s brooding Heathcliff; and Laura Palmer reappears in the guise of her doppelganger cousin, Maddy Ferguson. (Apparently, Lynch cast Sheryl Lee as Laura simply because she made a good-looking corpse, but then created the character of Maddy when it turned out she could act as well.)

So, if it’s all been done before, what’s so groundbreaking about The Killing? Must be that jumper after all.


Vicus Scurra said...

Most drama is derivative. The whole of Coronation Street is based on the Ubu plays.

Annie said...

Twin Peaks was inspired by Otto Preminger's Laura too. In which (plot spoilers) a detective falls in love & becomes obsessed with a beautiful dead girl, the dead girl turns out to be not dead, and a nasty piece of work to boot. I kind of like that. Better than being a mere plot point.

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen all those others you mention so er... Only The Killing has a female lead. So it's not all passive women being killed or mourning. There's a snub-nosed - no that's a gun - a be-jumpered competent woman who doesn't get her kit off. How refreshing.
Meanwhile I reassured a cautious woman on the tube about the drunk young man sitting opposite her who was on the verge, constantly on the verge, of tipping into her lap. I could tell he was drunk because he hadn't been able to put his shoes on properly - like a small boy in a hurry. And I could tell she was lovely because she was reading ノルウェイの森, in translation. I didn't get round to telling her about you, but you were on my mind.

Michele R. Strub said...

um, I was busy pondering this:

damn search engines

Tim Footman said...

Good point, Vicus. Merdre, as Ena Sharples used to say over a milk stout.

And another good point, Annie. And from Laura, we also get Vertigo.

Well, I thought about the gender thing, BWT, but to what extent is Sarah's gender really crucial? Some have pointed to her work-life balance problems, but in an egalitarian society like Denmark, that affects men as well (we see her colleague Meyer having to juggle his own family commitments).

As for the woman on the tube, it might have been more appropriate if she'd been reading this.

Not perhaps our most elegant sartorial contribution to the world, Michele, but definitely the warmest.

Anonymous said...

I liked State of Play a lot. Didn't know they remade it "over there". Sounds dreadful!

Anonymous said...

A refreshing change though - I think - to see her juggling all that stuff in a normal well-rounded way - as well as accompanying her crime-fighting jumper on patrol. Don't see much of it with women on the telly. In good telly anyway.

speccy said...

The Killing and State of Play were excellent. I liked Murder One and didn't like Twin Peaks. I don't know the other one at all.

I do actually think it's very significant that Sarah's gender isn't treated as important. Female characters in crime shows often totter round in high heels, tight clothes and full make up. Sarah does none of those things- she hardly changes her clothes even. Laure in The Spiral is a bit like that too, only she gets to have sex. Like all good fiction detectives, their home lives are a mess and they are totally obsessive. That's not new for detectives, but new for screen women detectives, and great to watch.

As you've pointed out; all the stories have been told, it's the telling that changes.

Pisces Iscariot said...

It's not necessarily the story, but the treatment of the characters and the ambiguity of the characters that makes the killing worth the effort.