This is a super-short Icelandic drama series a friend pointed out to me, and wondered why I hadn’t watched it yet. Fortunately it’s on UK Netflix, and so short you could watch the lot in an afternoon.
Welcome to The Lava Field (the original Icelandic title is Hraunið. In suitable Scandi-noir fashion it grabs the attention straight away with swift shotgun action. This version of the mysterious island is filled with extremely neat well-lit houses, beautiful boxes, like candles against the black bubbly lava field backdrop. The vast majority of the shots are bright and wide; you need to watch it wearing sunglasses. The brightness is throughout – both interiors and exteriors. I suppose Iceland has a complicated relationship with daylight and the sun, in a country where it doesn’t set for four weeks in the summer.
This Iceland is quiet and calm, not at all like the stormy claustrophobia of Trapped. The calm of this backwater Snaefellsnes Peninsula (a complicated name, pronounced in such a cute way) is shattered when banker Björn is shot and murdered, and the event staged to look like suicide. His little box isn’t tidy any longer – there’s blood spray everywhere and glass shattered all over the floor.
Enter Reykjavik crime detective Helgi Marvin Runarsson (played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson who was Trausti in Trapped and also appeared in Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude). Helgi is divorced, living apart from his wife and teenage daughter. His son died aged 8 years old. He regularly sees the police psychologist. He gets nightmares about abuse he suffered as a child, and goes running in the night. Nothing unusual for a police detective, but handled well. Every situation he ends up in is quite believable. Helgi reminds me of Tom in Welsh drama Hinterland, returning to his rural home with great misgivings. It turns out the past can’t be outrun.
Heida Reed is almost unrecognisable in a police uniform. On British screens we’re used to seeing her in period costume as Poldark’s not very secret obsession Elizabeth. Here she is Gréta, the overly confident rookie, a detective for only 2 months and determined to make her mark. Helgi understandably is not happy to get paired up with her. She has a long serious face, but is a total flirt and despite her inexperience she gets things done. By the end of the series she more than makes up for her initial mistakes.
The lava field itself is like the surface of another planet. It doesn’t look natural. Tourists are entertained with frightening folklore and legends of disappearance. If you get lost out on the lava field in the night you’re never seen again. Woooo! Scary stories are great, until two tourists go missing, one who turns out to be an essential witness to Helgi’s investigation. A vast search party is launched. They all look very smart in matching uniforms and well-prepared, ready at a moment’s notice to rappel down a rock face and rescue the injured. But Iceland can’t possibly have the money to pay this giant task force. I think they must be brave volunteers. Anyhow, as the search continues it’s another excuse for sweeping landscape shots.
It seems that Snaefellsnes is filled to the brim with shifty locals, all with something to hide. Auður, the hotel manager her dodgy business deals with the bankers; Gísli, Helgi’s own nasty bully from childhood; local cop Lars who is either useless or obstructing justice; the ex-police chief who can’t give up his job, and the victim’s brother-in-law, Ari, caught up in lies of his own making. There’s a strong anti-banker sentiment throughout, a theme Icelandic drama returns to repeatedly since the terrible 2008 financial crisis.
With just four episodes to get to the bottom of various interlinked crimes The Lava Field sidelines nuance in favour of a speedy resolution. The big bad biker gang especially seem like bad guys hastily sketched (tattoos! beards! drugs! maniacal laughing!). Amusingly jewellery is the gang leader’s undoing; not exactly the most macho of accessories.
The plot is a bit disjointed, but ultimately satisfying and the four-part model is welcome in a genre where gritty stories can fizzle out two-thirds of the way through your carefully plotted 10 episode run. The international drug trafficking plot gets a bit lost in the frantic pace of the final episode. Helgi’s family are threatened and his daughter is kidnapped; again, not breaking new ground for cop shows, but really helps pick up the pace for final episode. How do you say 24 in Icelandic?
I liked The Lava Field because it refused to explain itself. The viewer shares the frustration of piecing together the clues and discarding the red herrings. There’s no all-knowing explanation to wrap everything up like Poirot or Miss Marple would be desperate to enact.
So despite the race to the finish line, four parts was a great length. The Lava Field is like Shetland and Hinterland, in terms of pacing, tone, the importance of place and trying (and failing) to shake off your small town roots. They seemed pleased with it too – by no means is it a large cast, but the credits were so long they probably thanked everyone on the island! Good work Iceland – what’s next? Another series would be very welcome.
The Lava Field is available on UK Netflix now.