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REVIEW – The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)

January 2, 2015

FilmJuice have my review of Mikkel Nørgaard‘s Scandinavian police procedural The Keeper of Lost Causes. Based on the novel Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olssen, The Keeper of Lost Causes is an entirely predictable and by-the-numbers Scandinavian police procedural. Its plot is entirely linear and generic, its characters are generic, one-dimensional stereotypes and nothing introduced by either the director or the writer complicates matters in any way. This is a solidly entertaining slice of Scandinavian noir that offers no surprised whatsoever:

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the Tesco Everyday Mild Cheddar of Scandinavian noir: Competently made and entirely free of anything in the least bit new or different, it gets the job done but leaves you yearning for something with a little more flavour.

I quite enjoyed The Keeper of Lost Causes but, as I point out in my review, I can’t help but wonder how much more Scandinavian noir the British market can endure before people start getting sick of it. How many more series of The Bridge can sit through before we start shouting ‘Oh for fuck’s sake get some colour on those walls and go and have a shave!’? The Keeper of Lost Causes is based on the first novel in a series meaning that the film feels a lot like a pilot. In fact, there is already an adaptation of the second book in the series by the same director and with the same actors. Will it be released in the UK? Almost certainly but Scandinavian noir is definitely starting to feel a little bit long in the tooth… time for someone to adapt Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy and move us away from grizzled beardy Scandinavian men and towards grizzled beardy Mediterranean men instead! The Keeper of Lost Causes actually raises an interesting critical question as while the film does absolutely nothing even remotely new or different, it does it in a very competent and enjoyable manner. For as long as I have been paying attention to it, the conversation surrounding science fiction has portrayed genre boundaries and conventional narrative forms as something to be overcome but I think there is probably a case to be made for innovation being a somewhat over-rated quality. A lot has been made of the way that the gender of critics and gatekeepers tends to skew the conversation around a cultural scene but I think the same is probably true of scenes where the conversation is lead by creators and experienced critics. I suspect that a reader-focused conversation about books or an audience-focused conversation about film would see formal and narrative innovation as much less important than the competent deployment of established forms and story-types. The Keeper of Lost Causes is a solid piece of genre cinema, it does precisely what it says on the tin and absolutely nothing more.

11 Comments
  1. January 3, 2015 7:09 pm

    I saw this recently myself. I thought Fares Fares very good, but otherwise as you say it’s firmly generic. It felt to me like a good tv episode, not stellar but solid, like a strong episode of Wallander say. It would make much more sense to me as a tv pilot than as a cinema release, there seemed nothing requiring the big screen treatment.

    Competency is I think an underappreciated trait, and I think you’re right that critics and the highly experienced viewers/readers tend to focus more on pushing boundaries than quality work within boundaries, but then those of us like you and me who’ve seen a lot of stuff have presumably seen a lot of competent stuff too. It can be enjoyable, but it’s hard to get excited by something you’ve seen several times before. It’s perhaps natural then that what excites us isn’t what excites those who’ve seen less. Also of course some really value familiarity, which people like us tend not to. The whole concept of Sunday night viewing is that it doesn’t challenge, that it is comfortable, familiar, safe. This film is good Sunday night viewing, which takes me back to Wallander.

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  2. January 3, 2015 8:58 pm

    Crime, crime, crime everywhere — that is, in Scandinavian fiction. I honestly don’t understand why crime fiction is smothering Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden like a gray, wet, depressing blanket.

    I live in Scandinavia, so I’d prefer someone from the outside to offer a perspective on this phenomenon: What does it say about a culture when one form of fiction seems to elbow out everything else? Is the Crime Noir to Scandiavia what samurai stories are to Japan or Westerns to America — and what cultural myth does it uphold?
    :-S

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  3. January 3, 2015 9:51 pm

    Max —

    I found it interesting that a sequel has already been made. One of the emerging narratives about US TV is that stuff like True Detective is getting made for TV because you can’t make stuff for adults at feature length any more. The idea of taking a TV series format and producing it as a series of feature films is an interesting and quirky take on that business model.

    A decent episode of Wallander is probably about right… Wallander, Poirot or Montalbano. It does what it does well but does nothing special.

    You’re right that a lot of people do value familiarity but I tend not to respond to those emotions. I don’t do comfort viewing, I don’t do comfort viewing and I have never really gone in for the whole ‘self care’ thing of watching and re-watching stuff I love. In fact, most attempts at rewatching stuff I have loved in the past tends to result in my realising that the love might well have been misplaced.

    Having said that… there are times when I am aware that I’m in something approaching a comfort zone. For example, a few months ago I read the sequel to Massimo Carlotto’s The Goodbye Kiss and it’s pretty much more of the same: viciously capable anti-hero protagonist wandering around a corrupt landscape and overcoming challenges by being more brutal and more sociopathic than the opposition. I think I could probably read that type of story till the cows came home but I’d rather not. I’m aware that those types of stories fit quite comfortably with my misanthropic worldview and I’m not entirely comfortable with being pandered to. Too much comfort can be uncomfortable :-)

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  4. January 3, 2015 9:53 pm

    AR —

    The best theory I have heard about Scandinavian noir is that it’s a kind of racist fantasy. British people turn on the TV and they see a broadly anglo-saxon landscape reminiscent of our own and yet there are virtually no ethnic minorities and no traces of multiculturalism.

    I’m not sure I buy into it… but there’s probably something to it :-) You’d be amazed at how influential Scandinavian noir has been in the UK: Beards, jumpers, minimalist interior decor.

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  5. January 4, 2015 1:05 am

    Typo? “entirely unpredictable”? > BTW I found this draft in my Twitter app today: “@ruthlesscult :)” everyone for miles is weeping

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  6. January 4, 2015 11:47 am

    Ooops… good catch Jo :-)

    Awww… that is very sweet, I miss you too!

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  7. January 4, 2015 6:40 pm

    I have a certain hostility to comfort material myself. It’s why every couple of years I tend to purge my phone of the music on it, and push myself to listen to new and unfamiliar material. Stasis is a kind of death.

    The growth of Scandinavian noir for me comes from a number of trends. One is quite simply the Martin Beck novels from Sweden in the ’60s and ’70s which used the crime procedural as a means of critiquing Sweden’s social settlement and the assumptions that everything was rosy. Crime has a long tradition of being used as a form of moral literature, a literature of social criticism, and I think the success of those books paved the way for others to address the problems of their own times.

    Then again I think when stuff comes through in translation or from foreign cinema or tv selection bias creeps in. French movies we get tend to be arthousey conversation heavy pieces about relationships, we don’t get most of their action movies. Italian films tend to be bittersweet, we don’t get their films about say adultery in contemporary Italy. German films tend to be about German history, we don’t get their romcoms.

    So, I figure if a major Swedish release is a light hearted teenage coming of age tale we don’t tend to see it (except of course now we have, We Are the Best!), cultural gatekeepers tend to source and provide more of the same, picking among a country’s output for that portion of its output which we in the UK (since that’s what I can best speak to) associate with that country.

    That’s also why say Japanese horror and stuff by Kitano tends to cross over but comedy (including Kitano’s comedy) not so much, despite wonderful films such as Fine, Totally Fine or Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers.

    Another factor is just that it sells. The market rewards what sells, which often becomes self fulfilling.

    So I’m not sure there is a larger lesson to be drawn about Scandinavia, other than that they have a strong tradition of socially aware crime and that’s what at the moment we most associate with them in the English speaking world. We get what we get, because that’s what we get. We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because…

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  8. January 4, 2015 11:22 pm

    Very True… I suspect that Scandinavian noir will follow the model of all cinematic imports: Stumble across one run-away success (in this case the Millennium novels) and then provide more of the same until the market collapses.

    At the moment it’s Scandinavian procedurals, before that it was briefly Spanish horror films, Korean horror films and Japanese horror films. I think the fact that Scandinavian noir has had success across multiple media (film, TV and books) means that it has stuck around for a while longer than usual but the market has to collapse sooner rather than later. It already feels as though the bottom of the barrel is being scraped.

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  9. January 5, 2015 8:03 am

    Jonathan wrote: ” British people turn on the TV and they see a broadly anglo-saxon landscape reminiscent of our own and yet there are virtually no ethnic minorities and no traces of multiculturalism.”

    – Now that is interesting! Because the ethnic landscape shown in these fictions are, well, a fiction. I only have to walk outside to hear different languages being spoken — Norwegian, Swedish, English, Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili…

    The “establishment” culture tends to make minorities invisible. Crime Noir’s imaginary Scandinavia is part of that problem. (Sadly, that gives the extreme right a powerful argument: If the etablishment prefers not to mention even the existence of minorities, the racist extreme right will seize the opportunity to define minorities as a menace.)

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  10. January 5, 2015 9:42 am

    That’s very much a function of the tv shows. The original novels often addressed issues of racism in Scandinavian society.

    To be fair though, one of the two leads in Keeper of Lost Causes is a likeable Syrian immigrant who’s an observant muslim, so it’s not all whitewashing.

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  11. January 5, 2015 9:45 am

    You do get non-white characters but seldom more than one. Having said that, British series like Scott and Bailey or The Fall are not much better.

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