How an isolated Icelandic town has become the true star of Trapped
The best screenplays do more than showcase their location; they are fully informed by their sense of place. John Wayne’s thrillers are made all the more dramatic by the vast tabletops of Monument Valley, while The Third Man’s shadowy, Viennese backstreets are a star in their own right. Likewise, only the rolling vistas of New Zealand can do justice to a Tolkien epic.
In a similar vein, Trapped’s bleak landscapes – all fjords and snowy peaks – are perfect for luring the audience into its enigmatic claustrophobia while its pressing weather serves as an innovative plot device. From the outset, the title sequence juxtaposes high aerial shots of the country’s remarkable geography with uncomfortable close-ups of a cold, pale corpse.
Iceland, an island flung into the Atlantic far from its European mainland, is an imposing setting for criminal intrigue. To this day, it’s one of the most volcanically active places on earth, and it’s this restless geological activity that has shaped, over countless millennia, a landscape that’s characterised by lava fields, huffing craters and spouting geysers. There are triple-tiered waterfalls that cleave whole fields in two, giant rifts formed by ancient tectonic heaves and the original Geysir that’s lent its name to spouts the world over.
However, the setting of Trapped takes its geological notes from an entirely different form of activity. Swapping magma for ice, the peaks and troughs of the town of Seyðisfjörður (pronounced, roughly, say-dis-fyur-duh) have been carved by monumental glacial forces. As a result, its fjord is surrounded on all sides by mountains up to a kilometre in height. The only road that connects the township to the rest of Iceland is a 17-mile mountain pass that twists and backtracks past snow-capped crags and high-altitude lakes.
And, as the show demonstrates, blizzards can easily render Seyðisfjörður cut off – the perfect cover for clandestine activity. Flights end up grounded, ferries are stuck in the port and there’s no access to large-scale emergency medical care or even food re-supplies. Indeed, the town’s geography affects every part of its inhabitants’ lives from the cars they drive to the clothes they wear. It also forces a sense of self-reliance – at one stage a character has to set off an explosion to control an avalanche, something that’s normally the remit of the Icelandic military.
This setting, though, is how Trapped has set itself apart. Many programmes show claustrophobia in labyrinthine, urban spaces and forced imprisonment – in The Bridge and Borgen, action is focused on Malmö and Copenhagen. By taking the focus out of the city, Trapped is able to create a different form of claustrophobia – one that is perhaps, for many, even more impactful.
However, that’s not to say that the Seyðisfjörður we encounter is outlandish. While The Killing led us through familiarly spooky locales like darkened woods and abandoned warehouses, similarly spooky locales like darkened woods and abandoned warehouses, Trapped invites us into typically Icelandic homes and locations – families sit around watching TV, teenagers break into swimming pools to drink and have sex, and the beleaguered local police even have to store a cadaver in the frozen fish factory. It’s this mix of the everyday with extraordinary, sometimes horrific, events that has hooked so many viewers.
Perched on the far east coast of the island, Seyðisfjörður sits some 200 miles from Reykjavik on the west coast. In practical terms though, it’s a 400 mile, eight-hour drive. When you factor in that almost two thirds of Icelanders call the capital home, you start to get an idea of just how cut off Seyðisfjörður can be. The divide is best seen in the interaction between the local police force and the centralised Reykjavik police. Without giving too much away, the latter’s dismissive arrogance is enough to set the plot into a downward spiral. With everything considered, it’s not the geographical distance that’s most powerful but instead the town’s disconnect in terms of human consciousness and the relationship between province and capital.
But, despite relentlessly harsh winter weather and the fundamentally grim nature of the story it tells, it’s difficult to watch Trapped without gaining an appreciation of the region’s distinct beauty. Towering mountains frame shots of an idyllic bay while the real-life fjord is home to a colony of colourful puffins. Thanks to its latitude and seasonal setting, much of the show is filmed in darkness making for a certain intensity. Eventually, however, the truth is revealed and daylight uncovers a picturesque town, surrounded by sublime, craggy vistas of icy fjords and glacial valleys. And, when the large seagoing-ferry dwarfs the rural township, the viewer is left with a concise visual metaphor of a community beset with problems that are larger than its small borders.
This article was written by Simon Langley, a television mystery aficionado and writer for Best Served Scandinavia.