Scandinavian drama – we all know it, don’t we? Dark police procedurals, tortured characters, wintry landscapes, tangled plots, strong, beautiful women, fabulous modern interiors, reasoned coalition politics. And then a few more strong, beautiful women (and the odd beautiful man) thrown in for good measure.
But now Nordic drama is taking up corsets and rifles with 1864, a sweeping period drama set during Denmark’s ill-fated war with Prussia. And, thankfully for fans of such subtitled Saturday-night hits like Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge, the eight-part show possesses all the verve, originality and boldness that we’ve come to expect from TV from this part of the world.
It weaves personal stories with the wider political rumblings of a conflict fought over the knotty Schleswig-Holstein question, a diplomatic dispute between Denmark and Prussia that only three men properly understood – at least according to the British prime minister at the time, Lord Palmerston. They were: “The Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it”.
But for Danes it’s no laughing matter. For them 1864 is like Britain’s 1066 – a date that needs no explanation. For Brits, 1066 means the Norman conquest, while for Danes 1864 is their Prussian conquest, a year of great humiliation when Denmark lost its world-power status and prestige following a disastrous war.
Directed and written by Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch) the drama starts rather gently in the bucolic setting of a small village where two young boys, brothers Laust and Peter, play in the fields, under the loving gaze of their parents. They then become entranced by newcomer Inge (who, as a child, is played by the young actress Fanny Bornedal, who is the director’s daughter).
Later episodes centre on the trio as grown-ups, with the two men falling in love with Inge and facing the horrors of war as soldiers. This runs alongside a contemporary storyline about the family of a serviceman who has been killed in Afghanistan.
“We tried to make a tale that was a little bit slower paced that you can sink into, so you can take the characters by the hand and move into the house with them,” says Bornedal. “You have time, you can follow the characters, you can live your life with them. It’s not a thriller or a suspense movie. It’s more of a Titanic-style drama. You know you are going to hit an iceberg. You just have to follow the road.”
If only the journey were that easy for a drama that caused a storm of controversy when it aired in Denmark last year.