Fortitude – a review by Tom Harper


‘That’s a good fit,’ replied the author Chris Ewan, when I Tweeted that I was reviewing Sky’s highly anticipated new Arctic TV drama Fortitude for the BBC.

Posted on January 30, 2015 in Reviews
Tags: Fortitude, TV Crime, Tom Harper, Zodiac Station

‘That’s a good fit,’ replied the author Chris Ewan, when I Tweeted that I was reviewing Sky’s highly anticipated new Arctic TV drama Fortitude for the BBC.  ‘Too close for comfort,’ I thought.  My last novel, Zodiac Station, takes place on a fictional Arctic island inspired by the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard; it deals with dodgy scientists, mysterious deaths, a tight community where everyone harbours a secret – and (of course) homicidal polar bears.  Fortitude, by contrast, takes place in a fictional Arctic town inspired by the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard: it features dodgy scientists, mysterious deaths, a tight community where everyone harbours a secret – and (of course) homicidal polar bears.  Unlike my novel, it also features Michael Gambon, Sophie Gråbøl, Christopher Ecclestone and Stanley Tucci, plus twenty-five million pounds of Sky Atlantic’s money.  So you might say I was curious (read: obsessively paranoid) to see what they’d done with it.

Thanks to BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, I ended up with an advance copy of the first double-length episode (you can listen to my review here).  First impressions were promising: Michael Gambon with a gun, prowling around a frozen beach littered with washed-up ice.  Gradually, you catch snatches of haunting screams blown in on the wind.  You hope it’s an animal, but it sounds all too human.  Cue homicidal polar bear.

It’s always hard judging a TV series by the first episode.  Fortitude tries hard to grab you – too hard, for my taste.  It struggles to find a rhythm: long, hypnotic shots of Arctic scenery lay on the atmosphere, but too many of the characters’ scenes end abruptly, before you can get into them.  There are a lot of characters, with regular arrivals at the airport depositing more between every ad break, but no central standout performance to anchor it for the viewer.  I weave plots for a living, but even I got tangled in all the plot threads they introduced: a mysterious skeleton unearthed on the glacier; controversial plans for a new hotel; a possible polio outbreak; a scientist investigating cannibal bears; a woman who, in the tradition of Lisbeth Salander, is being closely supervised by the authorities.  And that’s before we even get close to the murder.

As for the cast, there’s a bit of B-movie bait-and-switch going on: the big name actors who feature so heavily on the posters and billboards don’t appear nearly so much on screen.  One of them doesn’t look like he’ll make it past the first episode.  But it’s nice to see Sophie Gråbøl (who does get more screen time) shrugging off her Fairisle jumper to play a fully paid up pillar of the community.   Richard Dormer is excellent as local sheriff Dan Anderssen (not to be confused in any way with the protagonist of Zodiac Station, Tom Anderson).  ‘Is he a good sheriff?’ one of the characters asks early on; the answer is that since there’s never been a crime in Fortitude, no-one knows if he’s good at his job or not.  I suspect we’re about to find out.  Unlike the perma-depressed detectives of Scandi-noir, he’s always smiling, but it’s a very unreassuring smile.   I’m looking forward to seeing more of him.

Though there’s obviously a certain professional rivalry, I would love to love this show.  When I first heard about it, I imagined something like True Detective or Twin Peaks in the Arctic: if they’d managed that, it would have been my favourite show ever.  On the basis of this first episode, Fortitude doesn’t scale those heights.  I’m not even sure what genre of show it’s going to be.  Sky have marketed it as a new Scandi-noir in the tradition of The Killing – they’ve even gone to the trouble of recruiting Sophie Gråbøl – but the whodunit element seems much less significant, in this early episode, than everything else going on in Fortitude.  Science fiction and horror tropes keep sneaking in, from a boy struck down by a mysterious illness, to the biological research station offering an ‘experimental therapy’.  It’ll be interesting to see if those become significant, or if they’re ultimately red herrings obscuring a more conventional story.  Sky have obviously lavished so much effort on this, and there are so many promising pieces, it’s hard to believe it won’t click into place if future episodes have more room to breathe.  And then it could really take off.

Whatever happens, I’ll be watching.  And so will the bears.

Fun Facts:

  • Though neither the show nor Sky’s publicity say so, the town of Fortitude has heavy parallels with Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen (aka Svalbard).  Both are in Norwegian territory, ruled by an omnipotent governor; old mining towns turning to tourism as the mining becomes less viable, and home to large populations of foreigners and scientists.  In both places, you have to be able to support yourself if you want to live there, so there’s no homelessness, no poverty and no crime.
  • That didn’t stop Norwegian glaciologist Monica Kristensen writing a crime novel set in Svalbard, Operation Fritham.
  • Sophie Gråbøl’s character’s surname, Odegard, roughly translates from Norwegian as ‘Bleak Place’ or ‘Wasteland’.  It’s also homonymous with the teenage Norwegian football star Martin Odegaard, recently signed by Real Madrid, but that probably has nothing to do with the plot.
  • Fortitude’s airport has a stuffed polar bear in the middle of the baggage carousel.  You can see exactly the same polar bear at the baggage carousel at Longyearbyen airport (pictured).
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