Monday, 14 March 2016

Political deviousness and claustrophobic killings with subtitles, and making the news without

The French president has been assassinated. His body has barely grown cold before potential successors are jockeying to replace him. That’s the starting point of Spin, or Les hommes de l’ombre, as it was known in its original French.

Spin: French answer to Borgen and just as good
If the president was a man of the moderate right, his Prime Minister Philippe Deleuvre, is far more harshly conservative. Indeed, though they ended up in the same government, Deleuvre was the President’s sworn enemy. Now Deleuvre launches a harshly repressive response to what he represents as an act of terrorism. Security measures are stepped up, and a climate of fear generated across the nation, a climate from which he believes he is most likely to benefit.

But he has calculated without taking into account Simon Kapita, spin Doctor extraordinaire and the man who was key to the election of the now-murdered President. Although Kapita had been living in New York, and indeed about to take a senior position with the UN, he can’t help being drawn into the campaign. Especially against a political enemy like Deleuvre. Even more so when he receives increasingly convincing evidence that there was no terrorist element to the murder, an aspect of the affair that his estranged wife, a journalist, goes to great lengths and even personal risk to investigate.

So Kapita sets out to find an alternative candidate for the right. He lights on Anne Visage, far more liberal than Deleuvre, and far more to his taste. But her own past isn’t free of difficult truths, and all his skills as a master of the trade are called into action. Especially as he finds himself up against a former colleague and friend, indeed his previous business partner, Ludovic Desmeuze, who has decided to work for Deleuvre.

The result of this mix is as gripping as the Danish political drama Borgen, made even sharper by some of the edgy, violent atmosphere of the excellent French thriller series, Engrenages or Spiral as it was known in English (incidentally, Kapita’s rival Desmeuze is played by Grégory Fitoussi who was so good in Spiral).

One of my favourite moments from the first season? When Kapita gives Visage a file before she goes into a TV debate. On the outside is a word referring to a scandal of the campaign which might destabilise her opponent if the contents came out (though, as it happens, it would cause her pain too). When she asks what’s inside, he says nothing – it was merely a trick used in the 1981 campaign by Mitterand, who would glance at it whenever he felt his opponent Giscard d'Estaing was getting too aggressive.

“That’s really twisted,” she says, though she takes the file with her, ready to make use of it, dirty or not. Until, that is, her opponent shows up on stage – with a far fatter file with exactly the same word on the cover…

Trapped in a storm-isolated town: the killer must be among us...
Just as gripping, in the present crop of subtitled TV series, was Trapped. This is the latest piece of Nordic Noir, but not from Scandinavia proper this time. Trapped is set in Iceland, in a small harbour town on the East Coast, miles from anywhere, which is one of the main plot devices: the weather has turned vile (even for Icelandic winter) cutting off the town. So when a dismembered body is found in the waters of the port, there’s no way police from Reykjavik can show up to help the investigation. Or rather take it over – the officer that would head the Reykjavik team is a bitter opponent of the local chief of police, the extraordinary, bear-like figure of Andri, magnificently played by Ólafur Darri Olafsson, of whom we’ve certainly not heard the last. His estranged wife is in town, with her new boyfriend. They’re there to pick up her and Andri’s daughters, and move them to Reykjavik. Just to intensify the ambivalence, the boyfriend is rather likeable.

Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir is outstanding as Hinrika, a policewoman with brilliant use of facial expression and body language, avoiding the need for much in the way of words. The result is a great mix of the personal drama and the public, as the bodies pile up, and we work our way slowly forward among these people trapped in a town cut off by the elements, towards finding the truth about the murders and the link they may or may not have with the tragic events seven years earlier and shown in the opening sequence: the death of a young girl (coincidentally Andri’s sister-in-law) when a deserted factory goes up in flame.

And finally, a series we abandoned when we first started watching it a couple of years ago, and now wonder why we didn’t keep going with, having enjoyed all three seasons so much: The News Room. This is great work by one of the finest scriptwriters of our time, Aaron Sorkin, and as usual it’s high-paced, just avoiding the frenetic by a whisker. In principle, unlike the other two this is a series that doesn’t need subtitles for English speakers, but we kept them on if only not to miss any of the quickfire dialogue. You don’t want to lose any of the repartee, a hallmark of Sorkin’s writing.

Another hallmark, fully on show in this series, is his range of believable, highly watchable characters; virtually none of them is entirely unlikeable, and none of them is without serious faults. Nor are they above making errors. On the contrary, as they work against the clock to prepare and broadcast and hour-long TV news programme each day, they frequently screw up, often monumentally – in their personal lives but often in the programme itself. The mix makes for compelling viewing.

The Newsroom: brilliant characters and quickfire dialogue
A favourite moment? Near the beginning (but there are plenty of others later) when the leading character is asked in a public meeting, “can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” He replies, “It's not the greatest country in the world... That's my answer. It sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws – for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people… America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

That was true when the series first emerged, back in 2012. It’s even truer today, in the age of Trump. Good for Sorkin for getting that right.

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