The Investigation review: A slow-burn drama that refuses to fall into the traps of true crime
Its measured pace can sometimes prove frustrating, but this Nordic drama succeeds because of its refusal to embrace true crime clichés.
By Michele Theil
The Investigation is the latest Scandi Noir drama to grace our TV screens, but offers an alternative look at crime while still employing the genre's traditional motifs. A Danish series that premiered on BBC Two in January, it dramatises the Copenhagen Police’s six-month investigation into the murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, who was found dead after interviewing Danish entreprenuer and inventor Peter Madsen on board his submarine. Wall’s death in August 2017 was highly publicised due to her impressive portfolio of work in high profile publications like The Guardian, The New York Times, TIME Magazine, and Slate.
Leading the investigation into Wall’s death, Chief of Homicide Jens Møller is played by Søren Malling, of The Killing and Borgen, who delivers an exceptional performance – there's no deification of his role, Malling's Møller is simply driven to find out what happened to Wall when she boarded Madsen’s submarine that day, particularly after striking up a friendship with Wall’s parents. (For this dramatisation, writer/director Tobias Lindholm worked with the real-life Jens Møller to lend authenticity to the series, and even meeting Wall’s parents as well as other key figures involved in the search for their daughter.)
It is clear throughout the series how deeply affected Møller is by this investigation, being guided by his gut to arrest Madsen for murder which puts pressure on his team to make the charges stick. Their investigation has a few false starts: first they hope but don’t really believe that Wall is alive, then - when blood is found in the submarine - her death is suggested to be an accident. These developments come at a deliberately slow pace, because that’s how real police investigations work – Wall's remains are discovered washed up on a beach halfway through the six-episode arc, the discovery preceded by a dozen conversations between Møller and the lead diver throughout the series explaining the difficulty in finding evidence under the sea when just one would do.
In a world filled with too much great TV and too little time to watch it all, it's a gamble as the creative team behind The Investigation test our patience and commitment. It is worth it, eventually, but the few breakthrough moments of the case take a while to get to – we keep watching in hope that, finally, something will happen.
Unlike most crime procedurals, there are no close-ups of forensic techs finding blood in the submarine, or exposition about the case while standing in a morgue over a dead body either. The Investigation chooses instead to focus squarely on the complexities of bringing a killer to justice, leaving out the gory and lurid details that pepper the majority of murder investigations on TV. It's a welcome approach, not relying on gruesome imagery to sell the narrative, even if the series doesn't always make of most of their absence by showcasing other interesting investigative tools.
Where the show really succeeds is its refusal to make a star of its killer – The Investigation ensures that its victim is at the forefront, a stark change to other famous true crime tales like 2019's Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile that have tended to concern themselves chiefly with the murderer instead. The show never names Wall’s killer, referring to him only as “the accused” or “the suspect” and solely following the investigation’s efforts to convict. In the final episode, the prosecutor (Pilou Asbæk) even says “the more civilised we become, the greater is our need to stare into darkness,” offering a searing indictment of society’s obsession with criminals. (Lindholm wrote in The Guardian that he “wanted to tell a story about Jens, Kim’s parents and the humanity of it all… where we didn’t even need to name the perpetrator.”)
It can be easy to forget watching true crime drama that the people on screen aren’t just characters in a plot. You can be sucked into wanting more grit, more drama, more intensity, instead of appreciating the sensitivity and discipline of the story. It’s understandable for audiences to want that out of their weekly crime fix but The Investigation doesn’t bow to those demands and is all the better for it. Despite its minor faults, this is the effective brilliance of Lindholm’s work – it always makes sure that you remember the fact behind the fiction.
The Investigation is available to watch in full on BBC iPlayer – for more to watch, check out our TV Guide