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
DVD REVIEW – THE LAST KING – ****
Directed by Niles Gaup, Starring: Kristofer Hivju, Jakob Oftebro. Action, Historical Drama. Norway, 2016, 96mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD and for download on 3rd October 2016 by Studiocanal
“An innocent boy today, our mightiest foe tomorrow”.
Norway: 1204. The throne is held by the Birkebeinerne king. However all is not well in the kingdom, and the rival Baglers, with the support of Denmark, are launching an attack upon the Birkebeinernes and hatching a plot to kill the king. Therefore, the king’s rightful heir - a baby born in secrecy out of wedlock - must be protected at all costs otherwise the royal bloodline will be severed and the Baglers will take the throne.
Norwegian director Nile Gaup’s returns to the realm of historical drama he first mined to great acclaim with PATHFINDER (1987) (a film set around the year 1000AD). This time around he’s fast-forwarded 200 years to deliver a rollicking GAME OF THRONES like tale (minus the dragons) in which winter isn’t just coming, it’s already here.
Against a sweeping widescreen snow covered landscape, the machinations of Norwegian civil war play out with neither women nor children safe from the marauding Baglers as they ruthlessly hunt down the king’s illegitimate son. Fleeing on skis, warrior Torstein (Kristofer Hivju (GAME OF THRONES, THE THING 2011) and his magnificent ginger beard, together with family man Skjervald (Jakob Oftebro) and his perfectly respectable but more modest beard, are forced to protect the infant across treacherous icy terrain.
The narrative toboggans along at a cracking pace, with the constant pursuit of the Baglers never more than an arrow or a bludgeoning axe away.
Both Hivju and Oftebro are excellent in their respective roles, and you find yourself genuinely rooting for the two frosty musketeers and their little innocent infant upon whom the future of Norway relies. You’ve gotta love Hivju’s hard-as-nails-heart-of-gold Torstein, lying on a bed of straw waiting to have his chest cut open to remove an embedded arrow head, growls at his impromptu farmer surgeon: “If I die...I’m going to kill you”.
Battle are swift, brutal, occasionally bloody, and efficiently staged using a modest numbers of stuntmen and extras as (presumably) the budget allowed rather than Hollywood level legions of CGI regiments which wouldn’t deliver the gritty bone-crunching intimacy conveyed here.
There’s a quote during the film’s end credits from an Icelandic writer named Halldor Laxness which reads: “The difference between a novelist and a historian is this: the former tells lies deliberately and for the fun of it; the historian tells lies and imagines he is telling the truth”. I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of THE LAST KING, but I can however testify to its engaging thrusting Nordic storytelling. And any film where a man appears to be playing music by plucking his beard like a hirsute harp and a princess is played by an actress named Thea Sofie Loch Næss gets two thumbs-up from me.