All hail the Danish revolution of sizzling drama and meaty roles for women

Barry Norman examines the success of programmes including The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge and new release A Royal Affair

A surprising name crops up as executive producer of an absorbing new Danish film A Royal Affair – that of Lars von Trier. The film itself, based on a true story, is a costume drama telling of a perilous love affair in the late 18th century between English-born Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander), wife of Denmark’s King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) and the royal physician Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen).


It’s a tale that has everything – illicit love, a cuckolded king, power politics, revenge and counter-revenge, an illegitimate royal princess and inevitable tragedy.

As the football pundit Alan Shearer famously remarked in a different context: “You couldn’t have wrote that script.” Well, the script was certainly wrote, and very well wrote, by director Nicolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, who won a prize for it at the Berlin film festival. But you couldn’t have thought it up as a work of fiction without arousing disbelief.

It’s a riveting story, splendidly made and played (and in cinemas from 15 June), but too conventional, I’d have thought, to attract von Trier, director of Breaking the Waves and The Kingdom and co-founder of Dogme 95, the avant-garde movement that produces films notable for grainy texture and hand-held camerawork.

“I know what you mean, but he’s a friend,” Arcel tells me. “We share an editing suite. He was interested in the story and helped a lot with ideas, writing and editing.”

More than that, though. Arcel, who also co-wrote the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, regards von Trier as the inspiration behind the current renaissance in Scandinavian, especially Danish, film-and-television-making.

“He was the first of us to attain international fame and recognition, someone we could look up to, who encouraged us to think out of the box.”

Thinking out of the box is a strong characteristic of such TV series and serials as the Danish-Swedish co-production The Bridge, the political drama Borgen, The Killing, Those Who Kill and before them Wallander.

An even stronger characteristic, however, is that in every case except Walllander the action is driven by a strong and for the most part decidedly off-the-wall woman. For that Arcel names another inspiration – Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison in the ITV series Prime Suspect.

“That,” he says, “was the mother of all crime series. There was an inspired character, sexually aggressive and with problems of her own.” Sofia Helin, who plays the wonderful, Asperger’s afflicted Saga Noren in The Bridge (and who is currently my favourite TV cop of all time), agrees.

“The only TV detective I ever got into was Helen Mirren,” she says. But even Jane Tennison seems orthodox when compared with the obsessively single-minded Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol, she of the famous sweaters) in The Killing and even more so Saga and Katrina Ries Jensen (Laura Bach) in the less successful – because more conventional – Those Who Kill. Each of those two, when feeling in need of sex, simply goes out and pulls, the target/victim being some bewildered bloke in a bar.

According to Arcel, Scandinavians were pleasantly surprised by the rapturous reception in England of all these TV offerings. “We’re accustomed to them,” he says. “In fact, Borgen didn’t get very good reviews in Denmark. We make lots of thrillers and dramas with strong, confident women in the lead roles.” So many, in fact, that Helin says she was initially reluctant to appear in The Bridge because “there were 13 crime series on Swedish TV at the time”.

Quite apart from the women and the exotic nature of unfamiliar locations and cultures, what adds to the programmes’ appeal in this country is that, Wallander and Those Who Kill excepted, they tend to be serials over ten or even 20 episodes rather than series. The typical British/American thriller or police procedural – Morse, Taggart, New Tricks, Castle, Rizzoli & Isles – tends to wrap everything up neatly in an hour or two.

Arcel says the Scandinavians prefer a story to proceed at its own pace, unfolding like a novel, allowing time for characters to develop and subplots to mature. Indeed, when done well as the Danes and the Swedes do it – and indeed as the Americans did it with Homeland – this is much more satisfactory. Let’s face it, at the end of The Killing and The Bridge weren’t we all much more fascinated by the characters than by whodunit and why?

Inevitably, the Americans have seized upon these little gems and made their own, far inferior versions. I gave up on the American production of The Killing when the male detective checked into Alcoholics Anonymous. “Here we go again,” I thought. “Same old same old. Enough already.”

Arcel couldn’t even bring himself to finish watching the Hollywood adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. “It was well made,” he says, “but I thought ‘Why bother? It’s been done rather well already.’”

So it has; so have the other two books in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, though I doubt whether that will stop Hollywood having a go at them.

Danes and Swedes, Arcel says, also tend to regard the American take on their TV serials with indifference because “the Americans dilute. They want to appeal to every possible audience.” By contrast, the Scandinavians appear to target their audience, don’t strive for universal appeal and just proceed, hoping they’ve got it right.

On the evidence so far, they certainly have.

If you know your Killing from your Borgen, your Sarah Lund from your Saga Noren? Why not try our Scandinavian drama quiz?


A Royal Affair is released in cinemas nationwide this Friday (15th June).