Below The Surface is an eight part Danish thriller commissioned by StudioCanal and picked up in the UK by the BBC. If you like your Nordic Noir with snow-capped forests and detectives in chunky jumpers, you might want to look away now – BTS is a much grittier, urban affair with barely any cuddly knitwear in sight.
It centres around a hijacking on the Copenhagen metro system. Fifteen passengers are corralled into an underground room by three masked men with machine guns, where they’re held in a giant cage beneath the city’s Marble Church – like subterranean human-sized hamsters. The terrorists demand money and threaten that a hostage will die each day until the ransom is paid.
To tackle this, the Danish authorities assemble a counter-terrorism task-force (TTF), led by ex-Special Forces soldier, Philip (played by Johannes Lassen). Philip is suffering with PTSD – something he tries to keep from his girlfriend/hostage negotiator, Louise (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) – after he himself was held captive and tortured whilst serving overseas. Having escaped and become lauded as a national hero, big things are expected of Philip and his team – but it soon becomes clear that the hijackers are far more highly organised and ruthless than originally thought; and Philip isn’t the hero we thought he was.
Meanwhile, the hijackers reach out to a disgraced journalist, Naja Toft (played by the wonderfully named Paprika Steen, who was also in season 2 of another Scandi favourite, Modus), via her blog to publicise their demands.
Each of the eight episodes is set in one day of the hijacking, and mostly it sticks to a formulaic routine of focussing on one of the victims, using flashbacks to give a back-story to their lives. It’s fairly predictable stuff, to be honest. And whilst the tension builds nicely as we discover more and more about the hijackers, their motives and their victims, there’s insufficient characterisation to fully engage with any of the protagonists to any real degree. By the end, I found myself not really caring what happened to Philip, Naja or any of the poor souls caged up underground. And it’s that lack of empathy that is the show’s biggest downfall.
Realism is also an issue. The fact that the Danish authorities chose a flawed, damaged individual to lead their task-force is just one of the irksome leaps-of-faith that this show asks you to take. Some of the decision-making by the characters is quite bizarre. I found myself shouting at the TV at some of the more unlikely twists and turns. And the Danish police are quite woefully inept and passive, given that their citizens are apparently in mortal danger. If you’re going to get captured and held in a giant hamster cage, I suggest you don’t chose Copenhagen, as you’re likely to be down there a long time if this really is a true reflection of Danish policing!
There are some decent performances, though. One of the hostages is Adel, a martial arts instructor, played by Iraqi actor, Dar Salim. Game Of Thrones fans might recognise him as Qotho in the show. He’s also been in other Nordic favourites such as Dicte: Crime Reporter and Borgen. And despite the lack of engagement and bewildering decision-making, it’s an enjoyable enough romp that does ramp up the tension over its eight episodes.
Not essential viewing, perhaps – but gratifying enough to stick with.
There are a few extras on the DVD. Brief interviews with Paprika Steen, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Dar Salim, Johannes Lassen; plus some featurettes.
Cast: Johannes Lassen, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Paprika Steen Created by: Kasper Barfoed Directed by: Christian E Christiansen, Roni Ezra, Kasper Barfoed Released by: Studiocanal Duration: 354 minutes (approx) Release dates: Digital Download (8 April 2018); DVD (9 April 2018)