If you haven’t heard of Sky Atlantic’s new crime thriller, you must’ve been hibernating for the past month. Either that, or you live in a tiny enclave in the middle of the Arctic where the only entertainment is the local heavy metal band – much like Fortitude in fact, the town where this eponymous series is set.
It’s hard to think of a drama that’s been so hyped up prior to launch. Adverts are everywhere: on trains, on billboards, on every other YouTube video. Sky also ran a plethora of behind-the-scenes specials before the show even reached our screens. But does this feature-length opener live up to the lavish promotion? Not quite, but there is certainly promise.
The inspiration for Fortitude is clear. Someone at Sky HQ watched with envy as the BBC pulled in huge ratings with its Scandinavian imports – The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge – and said: “Why haven’t we jumped on the Scand-wagon? Here’s a load of money. Make me something chilling. And chilly.”
All the signs of Nordic noir are there: the haunting, mumbled theme tune; the bleak surroundings; winter fashion; Nords, of course. And, if you’re still in any doubt, one of the stars of Fortitude is Sofie Grabol, the pin-up girl of British Scandimania after her lead role as Sarah Lund in The Killing.
The only differences now are Grabol’s new, cropped haircut, the fur parka instead of the famous jumper, and the lack of subtitles because she’s speaking English.
This is pretty much The Killing with a budget – perhaps Making A Killing would be a more fitting title.
The show is filmed in Iceland, but the exact location of Fortitude is unclear. All we know about the town is it’s somewhere near the Arctic – wild polar bears and Northern Lights are a giveaway – and it has a population of 713, although one assumes this number is soon to be whittled down. Without spoiling it too much, there are 712 people living in Fortitude by the end of this episode, and nobody goes on holiday.
The tagline for the series reads: ‘It’s not just the cold that kills.’ Nope. It’s also deranged serial murderers. Or polar bears. Or wolves. Unstable ice can be pretty dangerous too. We’ll have to wait and see, but if it turns out a hungry animal is behind the crime wave, cue the disappointment.
One problem with hyping a show to the hilt is that the audience expects something big. The writers clearly know this, as there’s a convoluted plot that’s set to be thick with twists, and more characters than the Chinese alphabet in double vision. With so much to introduce, it’s no wonder this first episode is an hour and 45 minutes long. It feels like a meet-and-greet with the entire town.
There’s Frank (Nicholas Pinnock), who’s married to Jules (Jessica Raine), but they’re having relationship problems. Their son, Liam (Darwin Brokenbro), comes down with an illness, which Doctor Allerdyce (Phoebe Nicholls) diagnoses as mumps, but then thinks might be polio – quite a difference, no? Liam eventually wakes up and wanders out of the bedroom window in his pyjamas, only to return later with fourth-degree frostbite on his toes.
Liam escaped unnoticed because Frank was out having it off with Elena (Veronica Echegui) – more like heavy saloppetting – and Jules was at the local bar watching the live band, who really need a new manager if this is the sort of gig they’re getting.
Then we have Charlie (Christopher Eccleston), a research professor, who welcomes new recruit Vincent (Luke Treadaway) to the laboratory, where he’ll be working with Natalie (Sienna Guillory). Charlie is writing a report for Governor Hilda (Sofie Grabol), which she hopes will sanction the building of a fancy new hotel in a nearby glacier.
Coal miner Jason (Aaron McCusker) throws a pickaxe in the works when he finds a mammoth carcass near the soon-to-be excavated glacier and offers it to Charlie for a price. Charlie rejects the offer but warns Hilda that, in light of the discovery, his report may not be the green light she was hoping for. Still with me?
Following this revelation, Charlie suffers a grisly attack – maybe that should be grizzly? – and Vincent is arrested by town sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) because he was at the professor’s house immediately after the incident. Why the sheriff was also at Charlie’s place is intriguingly unclear.
The sheriff seems to be at the centre of events in Fortitude. He has the ear of Hilda, he works with Frank and he knows just about everybody else, which is no small feat. He also takes a shining to Elena, who, by the way, is on licence for a crime she committed in a former life.
We also meet Henry (Michael Gambon), an old man who is dying of liver cancer. At the start of the episode, he witnesses a bear attack. Again, sheriff Dan is suspiciously quick to the scene and tells Henry to leave.
Later, we learn that Henry and Dan were once close friends but the relationship broke down for reasons that remain a mystery. Towards the end, Henry phones the police to tell them that Dan is behind the apparent bear attacks in Fortitude. Keep up, we’re nearly there.
When Dan warns Hilda that she will be suspected of involvement in Charlie’s assault, she invites DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) to the town to investigate. Morton is a former FBI officer whose arrival leaves the sheriff thoroughly put out.
On his inbound flight, Morton gets chatting to Trish (Chipo Chung), who later turns out to be Charlie’s wife. Their conversation reveals that Fortitude is a bit of a hub for swingers – something to do with wind chimes outside the houses – and Morton suspects that Charlie’s sexual proclivities may be the real motive for the crime rather than his impending report.
Despite Morton’s findings, the episode ends with Jason as the main suspect and police closing in on his cabin as he enjoys a dirty weekend with Natalie, the aforementioned lab technician. Got that? Good.
As you can tell, the plot is still in its infancy because there are so many bloody people involved. As a viewer, you feel like Prince Philip at the end of the Royal Variety show – briefly shaking hands with everyone but still not entirely sure who any of them are.
So much of the episode is devoted to setting everything up that the writing resembles the Arctic landscape – bereft of any colour or humanity.
Fortunately, there are still eleven episodes to go. Now that the basics are out of the way, the series can only get better.
A couple of interesting themes are developing too, such as environment versus industry – do we care more about the survival of the Arctic or the people who live there? – and the fragility of relationships in such a remote place. Not forgetting the small matter of who or what is to blame for the attacks.
There are definitely early signs that Fortitude is more than just a pale imitation of its Nordic noir predecessors, but it still has a huge point to prove after this underwhelming launch.
If you haven’t seen it, make sure you watch this opener or you’ll be utterly lost. If you did catch it, stick with it.
Despite the frosty reception, the series is sure to warm up.