The recent Nordicana London event and the right names for things

magnus samuelsson

Above you can see a picture of body builder-turned-actor Magnus Samuelsson at the recent Nordicana event in London (we were there the weekend before last). The winner of the 1998 World’s Strongest Man competition, Samuelsson has done a very good job of realising a partial life-imitates-art equation by playing body builder-turned-cop Gunnar Nyberg in the Swedish television adaptations of Arne Dahl’s Unit A books recently aired on BBC4 in the UK. The adaptations are referred to as Arne Dahl, although to add to the sense of labyrinthine intrigue worthy of one of Arne Dahl’s stories, Arne Dahl doesn’t appear in the shows, no-one else plays a fictional version of Arne Dahl in the shows and Arne Dahl isn’t Arne Dahl’s real name. Hang on in there if you’re still with us.

The Nordicana event itself took place in the Farmiloe Building in Clerkenwell, something of a multi-tiered and multi-flanked navigational puzzle for first-time visitors and also a centrepiece of moody post-industrial ambience in its own right (although the building itself was only vacated by the lead and glass merchants Farmiloe and Sons as recently as 1999). Well done to the blogger who suggested that you could easily imagine Sarah Lund from The Killing looking for clues to an unsolved murder here; we couldn’t find the remark you made online on second inspection but we insist on not taking credit for it ourselves.

The Farmiloe Building - getting all moody and close-up

The Farmiloe Building – getting all moody and close-up on us

Although conventional tiered and ascending cinema-style seating might have made the films and television programmes showed as part of what was billed ‘the UK’s first expo celebrating Scandinavian crime and thriller fiction and film’ easier to watch (a very pertinent issue if one is relying on subtitles at the foot of the screen to stay abreast of the dialogue even if most of the visual action is at hand), and although the loo facilities were precariously close to being a bit ‘cross-legged-queue-at-the-rock-festival-in-the-mud’, we would be at pains to stress that these were only minor quibbles for a number of reasons thus:

1) The choice of television and film shows was outstanding. We wish we had had more time to see all of what looked like a truly chilling essay in paranoia and prejudice, The Hunt, unfold before our very eyes. One constant theme or refrain we took away from the weekend is how profound and classical great modern Scandi TV and film drama is in its conception. This film looked worthy of comparisons with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Kafka at its most terrifying in examining the stigma wrongly directed at one man (brilliantly played by Mads Mikkelsen) as he looks to rebuild his career and life – only to horribly derailed by misunderstandings and Chinese whispers highly relevant to 21st-century fears and insecurities about child welfare (as the film makes clear, these worries are valid but not if they are mixed with a cocktail of violent emotion and misanthropy).

2) The big, big screen in the main warehouse separate to the main building augmented the epic nature of the films on show. Every time we feel we have wrung every possible piece of praise for Søren Malling bone-dry, he steps up to the plate and puts in another performance that puts him dangerously high up the premier division in the ongoing ‘best actor in the world’ sweepstakes even with Hollywood possibly oblivious to his credentials at this stage in his career (not necessarily a bad thing). He has done it again in A Hijacking, a film in which he plays a shipping company CEO looking to rescue the crew of a cargo ship apparently at the mercy of Somali pirates. Just like fellow Scandi actor Max van Sydow before him, Malling becomes the character he is playing and defines the emotions synonymous with that character – although Malling himself is becoming increasingly synonymous with (and adept at) taking on roles that require what you might call terse authority and intensity. As a film watcher, being privy to that kind of intensity in that particular setting was a marked upgrade on standard cinema gawping (which is why the quibble above is only a minor one).

Malling turned CEO: upping his stock in the World's Best Actor market

Malling turned CEO: upping his stock in the World’s Best Actor market

c) The organisers (rightly) made a big effort to create break-out areas and offer leisure activities for kids (also in a designated area). There wasn’t really any point at the two days of Nordicana where we felt we were caught in an unseemly jostle or pushed for time and space. Better weather would have made attractions such as the (more-or-less) outdoor bar more attractive, but the event was organised in the right spirit. On the whole, that seemed to have a good knock-on event on co-operative and civilised punters.

d) On that note, those established Nordic actors and writers who did turn up to participate in Q & A sessions with specialist audiences and interviewers alike were a genuine delight to encounter. They had no trace of diva or egosmith about them and they themselves appeared delighted (although still a little astonished) at how Scandi screen drama has embedded itself in the British consciousness in the last two years or so. It was endearing that the participants were so candid: candid about their life ambitions (Magnus Samuelsson said he wanted to go into acting because he wanted to explore new avenues in his life; told by Q & A curator Barry Forshaw that he had made the career move from strongman to thesp far better than Arnold Schwarzenegger, he got a huge round of applause); candid about the dynamics between the characters they play (I asked the Arne Dahl panel why they thought two of the Unit A detectives, Norlander and Söderstedt, initially had a frosty relationship given that they are communally hung-up and angsty and matey with it in later episodes; Claes Ljungmark, who plays Norlander, replied: ‘Norlander is a grumpy man…the fact that Söderstedt is right all the time makes him even more grumpy!’); candid in dealing with good challenging questions from the audience (when asked why the husband of Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen doesn’t have the staying power to deal with being First Man, series creator Adam Price said: ‘Because men are weak’); candid about how they prepare for roles (asked whether he had consulted with politicians prior to taking in the role of Birgitte Nyborg’s long-time mentor and sometime cabinet colleague Bent Sejrø, actor Lars Knutzon replied ‘No!’); and candid about their artistic vision (I asked if Borgen was inspired by classical drama and in-house writer Jeppe Gjervig Gram admitted there is a certain element of Shakespeare in Borgen’s dramatic expositions and machinations).

Claes Ljungmark - grumpy (but not as grizzled) as Norlander in Arne Dahl

Claes Ljungmark – grumpy (but not as grizzled) as Norlander in Arne Dahl

In view of how those genuine celebrities (people celebrated for the right reasons) who came to Nordicana managed to place their sophisticated artistic achievements in a sophisticated context, we wonder if Nordicana itself – or New Nordicana – isn’t the right epithet for the whole cultural movement vibrant within Scandi screen and print at this stage of the 21st century (and yes, we do know about the Dogme Manifesto – we would say that that in itself applies specifically to Denmark). Nordic Noir, the sub-label of Arrow Films, is a great name in its own right for a cultural movement and we’re not going to sulk if the tag remains, but we feel that films such as A Hijacking and The Hunt transcend the idea of even the noirish – they feel like Greek tragedies for the 21st century and are therefore all the more universal in their resonance and appeal. The word Nordicana might just have some global context (which is what multi-location, multi-lingual programmes like Borgen and Arne Dahl have sought to establish).

With that in mind, we suggest that the Independent has a rethink about headlines such as ‘Scandi-geeks descend on Nordicana fan-convention’. The people who came to Nordicana asked intelligent questions about intelligent drama and got intelligent responses. The event was little or no different from a high-brow yet accessible film or television festival and Nordic Noir was right to point out that it was celebrating a vibrant movement with this event. No-one would call wine buffs ‘vini-geeks’, especially if that is a common topic within weekend, and indeed weekday, newspapers; we hope our point has been made.

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