So much evidence of a Scandinavian crime wave has now washed up on our shores that it’s become possible to identify certain recurring tropes and images: chunky knitwear, clean interior design masking the dirtiest of deeds, windswept beaches, much moody staring out to sea. The Keeper of Lost Causes, an adaptation of the first of author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q novels, risks prompting derisive snorts by supplementing some of the above with clichés imported from the wider world.
Most of these are hiding in plain sight. Impulsive detective Carl Morck is introduced on a busted stakeout that results in himself and two colleagues being shot. Upon recovering, Morck is reassigned to a cold-case division, inevitably located in the bowels of his station, where his only company, apart from the heating pipes, are twenty years’ worth of unsolved files and an Arab sidekick, Assad (Fares Fares), whom it’s subtly inferred may have been relegated here on account of his race.
Off-duty, Morck trails a turbulent personal life, sheltering a tearaway teenage son from an ex who no longer wishes to speak to him; he spends his nights alone, chasing either junk food with Scotch, or pills with vodka; he is grumpy with himself, and tetchy around others. He’s played by Dogme fave Nicolaj Lie Kaas (Open Hearts), whose perma-grimace gives Morck the air of a man fearing the worst being surprised by a really noxious smell; he makes Kurt Wallander look like Barry Chuckle, and may yet prompt Charlie Brooker’s ‘tec-spoofing A Touch of Cloth into venturing a Denmark-set spin-off.
What we admire about Morck is his tenacity: though his investigations (technically reinvestigations) will be obstructed not just by the guilty parties but by fellow cops, he displays a stubborn resolve to get the job done right this time. Lie Kaas plays him with a topnote of impatient irritability – constantly drumming his fingers or legs, stomping out of rooms – which drives Mikkel Norgaard’s admirably pacy film on past its rote establishing scenes, and onto its main order of business: the disappearance of a politician on a ferry some five years before.
Where these crime dramas vary most is in their methodology. Some start with the corpse, then have the cop doggedly backtrack through the facts to reach a point at which it becomes clear who left it there; others go the supernatural route, and establish some psychic or empathetic bond between detective and victim. Keeper goes for a half-and-half approach that may not satisfy more rigorous viewers, but befits a case where no body has been found, and a life is still in the balance.
Morck’s file-parsing is intercut with scenes of the politician (an impressively committed Sonja Richter) after she boarded the ferry, trying to make her whereabouts known to the world. There are a few authorial freebies in here, visualising material Morck hasn’t yet uncovered for himself, but again the tactic effectively cuts to the chase, and a degree of connoisseurial pleasure can be taken from watching his reality move closer to hers. (You may have to look away during the DIY dentistry, mind.)
At the end of this first instalment – more are apparently on their way – this series doesn’t have the compelling atmos of the various Wallanders, nor yet the forceful characterisation of The Bridge, though Lie Kaas and Fares sketch an easy, winning pair of opposites. It’s the conviction inherent in its storytelling that grabs you: like its underdog heroes, Norgaard’s film displays a perfectly watchable desperation to pull all these loose ends and scraps together, and to see where they might usefully lead.
The Keeper of Lost Causes is available on DVD through Channel 4; a sequel, The Absent One, opens in selected cinemas from Friday.