In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
film review - THE ABSENT ONE ****
Directed by Mikkel Norgaard. Starring Fares Fares, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Pilou Asbaek, David Dencik, Danica Curcic, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina. Denmark / Germany / Sweden 2014 114 mins Certificate: 18
In cinemas April 8th 2016.
A riveting slice of Nordic noir, this shares its mismatched Copenhagen-cop protagonists and director with the popular 2013 thriller THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES, though a viewing of the earlier film isn’t essential to be wholly absorbed by the stand-alone murder-mystery at the core of THE ABSENT ONE.
Once greatly admired lawmen, Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares Fares) are now a standing joke of the cold-case department, disparagingly referred to as “The Arab and the drunk” by mocking colleagues. Morck, his expression permanently fixed in a beleaguered kind of frown, loses pockets of time due to booze and frequently entertains thoughts of suicide, while Assad is well balanced and proficient. When Morck is randomly confronted by a retired inspector, he gets drawn into an old case related to the murders of the older man’s twins. The 1994 double murder was seemingly resolved by the confession of a 16 year old student who was released a few years later on account of temporary, drug-fuelled insanity. The cop-father, however, kept the case going, convinced there was far more than met the eye; while Assad is sceptical about the need to dig up the past, Morck becomes fixated on finding out the truth, locating the original 911 call tapes and venturing to the boarding school around which it all revolved.
Regular viewers of this vein of Scandinavian mystery-thrillers will not be surprised to find a sombre, increasingly dark tale of concealed scandals, sexual assaults, teenage pregnancy and corruption, but there’s nothing contrived or hackneyed about THE ABSENT ONE. Subtly witty and complex in a way that most Hollywood thrillers would sell their soul (if they had one) to achieve, it spins a riveting non-linear yarn built upon the solid foundation of the understated yet credible partnership of the troubled Morck and the affable Assad. The muted humour inherent in their interactions is essential for such an oppressively solemn story, and both Kaas and Fares transcend any hint of a genre-standard chalk-cheese buddy-cop relationship.
Largely discreet in its violence, but occasionally harrowing in its brutality, the film is as well-crafted and efficiently paced as we have come to expect from the best of the Nordic noir sub-genre – tracking its way to a suspenseful, suitably grim climax that offers resolution, but only at the expense of tragic sacrifice. Danica Curcic and Sarah-Sofie Boussnina are outstanding in their portrait of the same character – a genuinely unbalanced teenage girl forced to go on the run for 20 years and rediscovered as a guilt-wracked, grief-stricken woman overwhelmed by cravings of vengeance.