The opening sequence of Midnight Sun is a challenge to the viewer to keep watching. With no context or explanation, we see a man wake up to find he’s strapped to a helicopter rotor. The rotor powers up and he begins to scream. The blades speed up into a blur and, well, you can imagine what happens next.
Nordic noir viewers may not be accustomed to murders quite this grisly. But the choice is a deliberate, stylised one, and the series that follows isn’t a carnival of horrors. Beyond the opening credits is a visually ravishing and heartfelt series with a dense, captivating mystery.
The murder has occurred in far north Sweden during the summer, when night never falls. Because the victim is French, Paris detective Kahina Zadi (Leïla Bekhti) is dispatched to remote mining town Kiruna to investigate alongside local prosecutor Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten). As the killings continue, the investigation draws in a local conspiracy and tensions with the area’s indigenous Sami people.
Midnight Sun is created and directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein. Their previous show, The Bridge, was a Swedish co-production with Denmark. This time they’ve joined forces with France. But Midnight Sun is even more of a transnational production. Because the only common language between Zadi and the Swedes is English, large portions of the series are spoken in English with the remainder in Swedish, French, and Sami. The evidently high budget, allowing stunning cinematography of remote locales, further positions the show to stand out internationally. The result is a series whose cultural identity is fluid, breaking down boundaries while asserting that European television intends to compete on the world stage even more vigorously than before.
The spine of the series is a familiar Nordic noir mystery. Like The Bridge, it features a series of apparently unconnected public crimes meant to scare and send a message. A male and female detective team are working together for the first time. Political intrigue, race relations, and conspiracy factor in. But the scale of the production and the more overtly cinematic style take Midnight Sun one step further.
Surprisingly, the influence of the artful and nightmarish series Hannibal is palpable. Søren Sveistrup, creator of The Killing, has acknowledged the influence of Twin Peaks on his show, which by then was nearly two decades old. Now the trans-Atlantic cross-pollination has sped up, with the aggressively visual storytelling and stylisation of Bryan Fuller’s recently cancelled series already echoed in Midnight Sun. Like Hannibal, each murder is its own distinctively grisly tableau. The line between reality, hallucination, and dream is blurred, with Zadi watching past events in her own flashbacks and characters having symbolic visions of destruction. The soundtrack is often a growling, ambient bassline, here highlighting the raw emptiness of the wilderness rather than the claustrophobic spaces of Hannibal. A white reindeer even appears in a dream, recalling Will Graham’s enormous black stag.
Evoking such a recent American series that was adored by critics but not widely seen suggests European creators are paying attention to television’s evolution around the world. Hannibal’s style could be applied to a more conventionally told and less gory series, and the result in Midnight Sun is a widely appealing mystery series that also dazzles with its tactile, visceral sensibility.
But Midnight Sun is also interested in poignant, deeply felt characterisation. Zadi is haunted by a past decision that she’s since tried to repress all thought of, but we witness it in fragments over the series as memories inevitably seep in. She is finally forced to confront it in a long and powerful close-up as, weeping, she explains what she did and how it has tormented her. Bekhti is heartbreaking, recalling Sarah Lancashire’s stunning monologue in the first episode of Happy Valley. In this scene the rumbling score transforms into a soaring, melancholy ballad. A wrenching montage in the finale is also set to this piece, intercutting the various climaxes with a Sami street protest led by the passionate and angry Kristoffer (Oscar Skagerberg) in a glorious payoff to the whole series. Beauty and feeling are as important as mystery and atmosphere in this show.
Midnight Sun is eager to tackle a wide range of tropes but sometimes tries too hard. An infidelity subplot adds little and seems calculated to add some sordid frisson, and one of the characters involved ultimately adds little to the plot. Attempts to add magic realism fall short by resorting to the stereotype of the omniscient native mystic. And the plot’s laudable density tries to cram a little too much plot into eight episodes. The Sami youth movement story has too little time to elucidate the issue’s complexities, although its presence is still valuable. Most non-Swedish audiences won’t be aware of indigenous issues and prejudice in Sweden, another example of the educational value the global distribution of TV drama can have. Opinion is divided, however, on whether the series depicts the Sami accurately.
But Midnight Sun’s brevity is admittedly welcome when so many other quality dramas are pounding at the door for our attention. With production values and scope that rival American and British productions, the series signals an exciting future for European television that will add yet more unmissable shows to our watch lists.