Carl Mørck is back to shine a torchlight on the shadows of the past.
From the start, the mood is set with a dark and uncertain atmosphere; the tension palpable to connote the Scandi crime signature. A grainy, distorted hand-held opening sequence renders a slight uncanniness to the prologue of Insomnia (1997) as we see a victim being tortured and tormented before us. It is one of many flashbacks that punctuate the story in a new cold case for ‘Department Q’ to unearth.
The Absent One is directed by Mikkel Nørgaard (The Keeper of Lost Causes, 2013, Klown, 2010, and Klown Forever, 2015). The script is penned by writer Nikolaj Arcel, whose credits include A Royal Affair (2012) starring Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander, and another adaptation – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). The film stars Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Pilou Asbæk, Danica Curcic, David Dencik, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Marco Ilsø, Johanne Louise Schmidt and Søren Pilmark.
*WARNING – May contain spoilers!*
Following the rescue of the politician in The Keeper of Lost Causes – the first dormant case solved by Mørck (Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares) – ‘Department Q’ is still regarded as a joke to their peers. At an office party, our undervalued partners are crudely nicknamed “The Arab and the Drunk”, as well as the two Smurfs. Here, we amusingly see one of many occasions that Mørck is forced out of his subterranean shell and out of his comfort zone. In this instance, Assad chides him into making an effort getting to know their new secretary Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt). Despite their own rocky introduction in the first film, a respect and understanding has evolved, which can be read when Assad excuses Mørck’s icy antisocial behaviour, explaining to Rose: “Don’t mind him. Carl just prefers working, that’s all.”
Linking back to the opening sequence, the crime plot is quickly established when Mørck is approached at the police HQ by a man in fear and desperation. The man is later found dead in his bathtub – identified as former Chief Inspector Henning Jørgensen, who quit his job in the 90s after his two children – Thomas and Marie – were murdered. Nevertheless, he has been investigating privately and passes the reins to Mørck with a parcel of clues addressed to him in his wake.
As Mørck and Assad tackle the mystery, we are taken back through snippets of time to the 1990s when the murders took place. However, the murders are just the inciting incident for the events leading up to the tragic outcome. Instead of learning more about the Jørgensen victims, we travel back twenty years to follow Kirsten “Kimmie” Marie Lassen (Boussnina) as she attends the prestigious Griffenholm Boarding school, resembling the academy in the Danish supernatural show Heartless (2014- ), minus any soul-eating shenanigans.
If we thought the politician incarcerated in a decompression chamber for five years in a revenge plot mimicking The Cell (2000) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) combined, the brutality of the crimes in The Absent One is even more unsettling to watch. We swap the claustrophobia for violence on par with A Clockwork Orange (1971) or The Riot Club (2014), the latter directed by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig. Kimmie’s spiral into anarchy is inspired by legacy Ditlev Pram (Ilsø). Grown up, Ditlev (Asbæk, 1864, Borgen, 2010-2013) is a tycoon – owning the largest hotel chain in Scandinavia, private hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies. He remains friends with the sadistic Ulrich Dybbøl (Dencik, Men & Chicken, 2015) and they have not changed.
The Griffenholm Alumni get together for hunts, including “Special Kills”. If you win – you can get a cottage in Provence. What do you need to do? Kill a zebra, or any one of the animals kept in Pram’s private collection for mounting on a wall. The detectives continue to pick at the threads that unravel the secrets hidden by the boarding school to avoid scandal. Due to the societal hierarchy, Mørck’s superiors, including Police Commissioner Marcus Jacobsen (Pilmark), try to discourage the case moving forward and implicating Pram. However, a pattern of vicious attacks and rapes in a forest close to the campus point to the feral activities of the perpetrators they have been looking for.
At the heart of the narrative beats an emotional protagonist with social anxieties. Mørck takes on the case out of guilt for not taking Jørgensen seriously. However, this sense of obligation is not the only motive – he is responding emotionally due to paternal love. The loss resonates with Carl and prompts him to expand his efforts to formulate human relationships, starting with his son who is in danger of becoming estranged. Carl also shows a significant sympathy for present day Kimmie (Curcic), notably when he rhetorically asks her why he doesn’t end it all: “Because people like you need me.” Her struggles to move on from her traumatic experience at Griffenholm has left her a shell of her former self; haunted by a spectral image of young Ditlev.
These touching moments contrast the sardonic social clashes to amuse us. For example, when Rose almost immediately ingratiates herself by proactively organising the evidence and clues boards, as well as giving her opinion on the investigation, much to Mørck’s disparagement. Mørck’s dry wit bolsters his likability. We see this when he decides to take the late Jørgensen’s cat (simply naming it “Cat”), letting Rose look after it, and when he is surprised to discover Assad can speak fluent French.
The cinematic soundtrack, composed by Patrik Andrén, Uno Helmersson and Johan Söderqvist, delivers a compelling atmospheric score from the combined musical talents behind Let the Right One In (2008), The Bridge (2011- ) and Kon Tiki (2012). Add to this the fragmented narrative which straddles the past with present day, The Absent One derives a strong feeling of intrigue and tragedy. The brightly lit scenes of the summer filled with hope from young Kimmie’s perspective is soon shattered when she is influenced by her infatuation with Ditlev. The older Kimmie redeems herself on a quest for vengeance and absolution.
It is interesting that the justice is handled by the victim and the truth is revealed, rather than at the hands of the maverick cop. What is left for Mørck is an empty feeling; the case is solved leaving behind outlines of their hard work from the evidence boards and an even emptier sense of victory. Can Carl keep it together and reconnect with his son? Or will we see another detective tread the same treacherous ground like Sarah Lund in The Killing (2007-2012)?
Not only did the film win the Audience Award, Fares Fares took home the prize for Best Supporting Actor at the 2015 Robert Prisen festival. Both Sarah-Sofie Boussnina (1864, 2014) and Danica Curcic were nominated at the 2015 Bodil Awards for Best Supporting Actress, playing the younger and older versions of Kimmie, respectively. Lie Kaas possesses a brooding on-screen presence, as formidable as his portrayal of Energreen CEO Sander in Follow the Money. In particular, the confrontational scenes he shares with Pilou Asbæk.
The Department Q adaptations have proved to be successful at the box office, throughout the trilogy from The Keeper of Lost Causes, to The Absent One, and A Conspiracy of Faith. In Denmark, The Keeper of Lost Causes sold 725,000 tickets and the cinema admissions elevated it to claim the number one film of the year. The Absent One enjoyed the best opening week ever for a local film in Denmark and exceeded the first by claiming 770,000 admissions. More recently, A Conspiracy of Faith basked in glory by breaking a 15-year record at the Danish box office, grossing an estimated £1.2 million from 154,342 tickets during its opening. It seems the Department Q movies just keep getting better.
Words by Antony Smith
The Absent One is released on DVD from Monday 30th May through Nordic Noir & Beyond. Alternatively, you can pre-order your digital copy from iTunes here.