Comment • reviews • Nordic Noir • whimsy
Contains mild spoilers.
So I’m saving up Midnight Sun to binge watch but in the meantime the 1997 production of Insomnia is a good precursor, showing the downside of daylight that lasts for months. This is literally what Nordic Noir becomes when you can’t turn the lights off. Nordic Blanc, perhaps?
Insomnia is a slow-burn thriller that follows the psychological deterioration of detective Jonas Engström as he attempts to solve a murder in the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø. Engström isn’t from round those parts and can’t deal with the 24-hour sunlight or the burden of a big mistake that happens early on in the case.
Just prior to the film’s events, Engström’s been busted out of the Swedish polis and the way we find out is watching him listening in to his new Norwegian colleagues discussing the dirt: it’s a scene that’s needed for exposition but it’s more than that; just like a similar scene in The Damned United when Brian Clough hears his new Leeds players mocking their gaffer, it shows the eavesdropper at their most vulnerable. Watching Engström straddle vulnerability and his professional smarts is compelling viewing. He is not a sympathetically drawn character and it isn’t clear where his moral compass truly points even if his flashbacks suggest that his conscience remains operational.
What Engström needs is a nemesis and for a while we think that person is going to be colleague Hilde Hagen, who specialises in penetrating stares. The main criminal interest is Jon Holt, a crime writer who has made me think a bit differently about crime writers. (I’m very suspicious.) The battle between Engström and Holt could really go either way and shows what can happen if your morality becomes less anchored in reality.
This is a film that’s packed with atmosphere. The pace is languid, moody and claustrophobic, and at times a little dreamy, as though we – a little like the main characters – are becoming unclear about what is real and what is not. Fog, rain and a cracked windscreen are all devices used to cloak what is actually going on.
Insomnia has aged well during its twenty years, even if the musical score has dated somewhat. Its style reminds me greatly of The Last Contract which considers a conspiracy theory about the murder of Olof Palme (though The Last Contract has pace more consistent with a standard thriller). Coincidentally, both films star Bjørn Floberg, who is excellent here as Jon Holt.
I mentioned earlier that I’m now a bit more wary about the crime writer community. But I was delighted to see an injured detective taking time out by reading one of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Beck books. I wonder what Martin Beck would have made of this mystery.
An unusual film worth attention.