Saturday 6 October 2018

From the archive: "Department Q: The Absent One"

2013's The Keeper of Lost Causes - another very solid item carried ashore on the Scandie crime wave, adapted from the first of author Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q books - introduced us to Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a grim-visaged, emotionally repressed detective reassigned to Copenhagen's dusty cold-case division after crossing his bosses once too often. Here was another maverick cop, for whom clearing up after his colleagues' mistakes might eventually provide some form of redemption; yet the series' second instalment The Absent One immediately challenges Mørck by recording a mistake of his own. At a party thrown to celebrate the successful relaunch of the Department, a typically cranky Mørck shoos away the attentions of a former detective, driven to desperation by the murder of his teenage son and daughter twenty years previously; next morning, the man is found dead in his bathtub, his wrists slashed, obliging our hero to take those pleas to reopen the case seriously. The subsequent investigation, pursuing the one lead that wasn't chased up two decades earlier (a tearful phone call to emergency services), will lead him to an elite prep school that can count several of the country's best and brightest among its alumni.

Adler-Olsen's MO, as translated in these films, involves a slight cheat - interpolating flashbacks and sidebars that privilege the viewer with information Mørck and his team haven't yet come across - yet it's no more than the average BBC4 Saturday night drama deals in: as have Wallander or The Bridge before it, The Absent One offers the reliable pleasure of watching a fuller picture slowly be pieced together. As in those shows, what's really being interrogated here is status of one kind or another. This case is a David-versus-Goliath matter, and one suspects most viewers will find it hard not to side with Department Q's basement dwellers - the maladroit Mørck, his put-upon Arab sidekick Assad (Fares Fares), plus the new secretary whom evidence suggests has been placed here by the author to draw the hero out of his shell - against the private school bullies who can accord to import zebras for their monthly hunt and lean on the press to conceal their crimes with anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

As an emergent franchise, these films have displayed no greater ambition than to deliver a good yarn to an established audience, but they've been nimbly adapted by Nikolaj Arcel (King's Game), and this instalment in particular features a superior selection of Danish acting talent, comparable to the starrier Poirots. There's choice villainy from Pilou Asbaek (A War) and David Dencik (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as privileged brothers who surely have blood on their well-manicured hands, and - while The Absent One doesn't deviate too greatly from contemporary crime drama's grim templates of female victimhood - Danica Curcic at least gets to try on different personae, from bag lady to shotgun-toting avenging angel, as the case's most vividly unravelling loose end. (The one genre reversal here comes amid the finale, as the leads are put in the position usually assigned to damsels in distress.) Elsewhere, the addition of a cat to the Department Q basement indicates the producers are keen to build and develop this team: they already have a real boon in Fares' quiet solidity as the Lewis to Mørck's Morse, subtly introducing all manner of post-racial notes and tensions, and while Mørck himself has become at least a little more open and empathetic by the end of part two, Lie Kaas continues his fine impersonation of a man who not only looks as though he knows something's rotten in the state of Denmark, but as if he can smell it, too. There will be more of these; for the time being, the Q still implies a certain quality.

(MovieMail, April 2016)

The Absent One screens on BBC2 tonight at 12.40am.

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