Writing this review is difficult for two reasons. One: I’ve just watched the final episode of The Bridge series 4, and although we are in a golden age of television, I’m a little sad that I may never watch a show this good again. It’s a bold statement, but I’ll come back to this point later in the review. The second thing that makes this review difficult is how best to capture the show’s brilliance and excitement without spoiling it for potential viewers.
The Bridge is a Scandinavian drama that focuses on police departments from Copenhagen and Malmo as they collaborate on a series of murder investigations. It’s an indication of how good the concept and storyline are that it has been remade several times for US, British (as The Tunnel), German, Russian and Asian TV. However, having watched the original, I don’t think that I could bring myself to watch the others. This is not to disparage the remakes, as I’m sure that they are good shows that have their own strengths, but after watching four series of brilliant performances by the actors in the Swedish-Danish original, I’d be forever comparing with the original (and probably complaining about the remakes!)
The opening scenes of the first series explain the title of the show. The Øresund Bridge links the Swedish city of Malmö with the Danish capital, Copenhagen. When a body is found on the bridge – sliced in half at the waist and positioned so that each half lies on either side of the Sweden-Denmark border – both the Danish and Swedish police must be involved in the investigation. Saga Norén from the Malmo police department (played by Sofia Helin) and her Danish counterpart Martin Rohde (played by Kim Bodnia) meet on the bridge when the body is discovered, and this is the start of both the investigation and an intriguing working relationship between the two.
Martin comes across as amiable, but it’s quickly clear that Saga is socially awkward. Her forthright conversation astounds Martin, particular when it comes to questions about his private life and Saga’s brutal assessment of the situation. Despite this awkward start, it works because Martin somehow gets Saga, eventually warming to her outwardly cold, yet unique personality. Saga is also supported by her boss, Hans. As the series progresses, it is clear that Hans is a father-figure for Saga, often willing to take her aside for a quiet chat or relax procedure in order to get the best out of his star detective, accommodating her social inadequacies. We are also introduced to John, the IT specialist with the Malmö police, whose job it is to track mobile calls and scan CCTV footage; Jair, the pathologist in Malmo, with whom Saga appears to share a good working relationship based on her willingness to learn more about the science of his job; and Lillian, the head of police in Copenhagen.
Working together, the Danish and Swedish teams make good progress on the case. The killer phones a local journalist, using him to spread the message that he, the killer, is trying to highlight various social problems. But as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that there is a more personal motive behind the crimes.
Like the three series that follow, series one of The Bridge is a superb piece of standalone television. It tells the story of a murder investigation from day one, right up to the shocking conclusion. The fascinating characters give the show a depth that is as good as any show that I’ve ever seen. Outstanding performances from Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia, and the unique chemistry that they bring to the screen, make this a must-watch.
When the series finishes, you’re left with the impression that you’ve just witnessed one of the best TV shows; that it’s a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that the makers would do well to even get close to again. And then you watch the second series.
As previously noted, the second series tells its own complete story, but the events of the previous series continue to shape what happens in the lives of Saga and Martin. Once again, we have a killer who seems hell-bent on proving a point. The police teams are fleshed out by Danish detective, Pernille, who becomes friendly with Martin, and Rasmus, a cocky young Swedish detective whose determination to succeed sees him prefer to act on impulse as opposed to following the rules. Both the new characters have significant roles as the series leads to a conclusion that is at once satisfying and devastating.
So, that’s two series gone, and you start to experience the same feelings that you had at the end of the first. Surely, they’ve set the bar so high with the climax of series two that they should just stop. Well, my friends, gather in close for series three, because it’s a humdinger in which the events in Saga’s life that have been boiling away in the background start to affect her in significant ways. Naturally, there is another killer trying to get his message across via a series of bizarre killings and if watching Saga’s personal struggles as the police try to solve the latest crimes was all that series three offered, it would still have been a worthwhile endeavour. But that’s not all as we are introduced to The Bridge’s third major character: Henrik Sabroe.
Early in proceedings, Danish detective Henrik asks his boss, Lillian, if she will send him to Malmö to help the Swedish police crack the case. As you watch the early episodes, you’re going to be asking yourself a lot of questions as the pill-popping Henrik coolly talks to his wife before heading out into the Copenhagen night to meet other women. Once in Sweden, he asks Saga for help with an old case that he’s been working on, and as his backstory is slowly revealed over the first half of the series, it’s compelling television. For me, Thure Lindhardt’s performance as Henrik is one of the highlights of the series. He plays the role with a wonderful balance of aggression and humility, making the viewer totally buy into his story. He works well with Saga, encouraging her when she needs help but isn’t above poking fun at her – calling her “Wikipedia” when she quotes some fact at him. Also in this series, Hans and Lillian get their own story, and IT specialist John gets a nice little personal connection to the investigation.
The final eight-episode series is every bit as good as what has gone before, and in some ways is a continuation of the previous series. As Saga helps the Danish police track down yet another killer with a grudge, the major story arcs are given a satisfying conclusion and if it feels like you’ve lived every minute of Saga’s trials and tribulations through all of the thirty-eight episodes, it’s hard not to have a lump in your throat for that final scene on the bridge. Her closing words are a stroke of genius from the show’s creator and writer, Hans Rosenfeldt.
I’ve specifically not talked about the plots and killers in too much detail so as to avoid any spoilers, but rest assured, in each case, there is a dazzling array of characters that will keep you guessing as the police come up against lots of dead ends and red herrings. One of the show’s many strengths is how characters are fed seamlessly into the mix, quickly engaging you in the plot of their daily lives whilst wondering how, and if, they are connected to the wider story that is unfolding. Things that may seem significant often peter out whilst the reverse is also true, so keep your eyes peeled!
Not only are the writing and performances top-notch, but the production team bring a lot of style to the show. For the most part, the show is filmed in the city at night, although there is the odd excursion into rural fringes. The camera shows us modern cityscapes that appear to be in the permanent grip of autumn, a beautiful combination of Scandinavian grim and cool. There are plenty of drone shots of the city from up above, including the majestic Øresund Bridge itself. Then there is the theme song, “Hollow Talk” by Danish band Choir of Young Believers. The theme sets the tone and follows the pre-credits sequence at the start of each episode. An instrumental section reappears at the end of the episode, rising to a crescendo as, more often than not, the characters make some startling discovery that makes us re-think what we’ve seen or become excited at what this means for the next episode.
In watching The Bridge, I’ve noticed that the police officers are portrayed as normal people, dealing with many problems that, at least some of the time, regular people will be able to empathise with. However, the killers are played out more like caricatures. Although the reasons for their killing sprees are grounded in reasonable grudges, the murders are exaggerated, and the murder scenes themselves often staged, presented as artistic tableaus with some message for the police to figure out. It’s another quirk that gives the show its unique look and feel.
No overview of The Bridge would be complete without making specific reference to Sofia Helin’s performance as Saga. This must feel like the role of a lifetime to the Swedish actress. She’s playing a character suffering from a chronic social issue, and more often than not, this is written across her face. She rarely smiles across the four series, often wearing a puzzled look or fixing her features in a permanent mask of confusion or concentration. I wonder if she often went home with a headache after filming. As her story arc progresses, she brings the required level of emotion to the role, making us believe in Saga’s problems. Whilst it’s just one of the many outstanding aspects of The Bridge, there’s no doubt that it’s her show.
So, let’s get to the nub of what may be a problem for many British viewers: this is a show presented in the native languages with English subtitles. I used to have the view that I couldn’t be bothered spending my time reading subtitles, but once I watched a few films, I found that it became an automatic process, and in some ways, enhanced the experience because you were constantly focussed on the plot and what the characters were saying. The fourth and final series of The Bridge was shown last year on the BBC – the reason that I’ve taken so long to get around to watching it was that I persuaded my wife – a previous subtitle-avoider – to give it a try. “Just watch a few episodes of the first series, and see what you think,” I’d said. Naturally, she was already hooked by the end of the first episode! For various reasons – nothing to do with lack of interest – we watched the first three series over the last twelve months or so, and so I was only in a position for the grand finale recently.
Basically, what I’m saying here is that if you only ever watch one subtitled film or TV series, make sure it’s the first episode of The Bridge. I’m willing to bet that you’ll be hooked.
At the start of this article, I made some comment about being sad that I may never watch a show this good again. Each series of The Bridge was consistently excellent, and whilst there are other shows that you can say this about, I’ve not seen one where the characters are so complex yet compelling, having you emotionally invested not only in the murder case but their lives as well. Totally different type of show but Game of Thrones, for example, is a show that I love: it is consistently good across its entire span of episodes, has stupendous production values but doesn’t have me feeling the same way about the characters that The Bridge does.
Again, a different show, but since 2001, I’ve always thought of Band of Brothers as the high watermark in television – a true story that got you to engage with the characters and also had the production values of a mega-budget film. The fact that I’ve mentioned The Bridge in the same breath as these other two excellent shows demonstrates how highly I rate it. Whisper it quietly, but series 1-4 of The Bridge, a subtitled Scandinavian police drama, may be the greatest TV series ever made.
Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.