Scandinavian noir has been a victim of its own success. Back in the late 2000s, a TV series called The Killing emerged from the market for DVD box sets and began turning heads. More cinematic of style and sombre of tone than its American and British contemporaries, The Killing created an enormous demand for more of the same prompting production companies to flood the market with films and TV series like Headhunters, Borgen, A Hijacking and The Bridge. In fact, this gritty and yet cinematic style proved so popular with British audiences that British production companies took it upon themselves not only to remake Scandinavian dramas but also to begin incorporating Scandinavian tropes into rubbish regional detective series like Hinterland and Shetland. Eight years after the first series of The Killing and it is becoming almost impossible to turn on the TV without encountering a bearded, grizzled protagonist or a filtered shot of a beautifully desolate landscape. It is not clear how much longer this style can endure before audiences start getting bored but the tide of Scandinavian noir continues to flow… Based on a series of novels by the Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olssen, 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.
The film opens with a disastrous attempt to apprehend a criminal that leaves two detectives in the hospital. One of the detectives is unable to walk and the other one blames himself for everything that happened. Declared fit for duty, the second detective returns to work with a black leather jacket, a complexion like the inside of a copper kettle and an expression so ludicrously grumpy that you’ll want to rub his little belly and call him Detective Grumpy Pants. Grumpy Pants’ real name is Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and he was a respected homicide detective until his injury and his reputation for being a cartoonish sourpuss prompted his boss to divert him away from the front line and towards a desk job reviewing old cases. Somewhat predictably, this makes Detective Grumpy Pants event more grumpy than usual and so he spends the first twenty minutes of the film sitting at his desk smoking and being horrible to an inexperienced assistant (Fares Fares) who is simply overjoyed at the prospect of working real cases.
The first case the pair hit upon involves a rising star in the Danish political firmament (Sonja Richter) who took her brain-damaged brother out for a ferry ride only to throw herself off the ferry and into the sea. Puzzled as to why a successful and ambitious woman would a) commit suicide and b) take her brain-damaged brother with her in order to do so, Grumpy Pants and side-kick decide that the facts don’t add up and begin investigating what they suspect was actually a murder. Meanwhile, the audience learn that the politician is not only alive but trapped in a pressure chamber by someone intent upon punishing her for some unspecified transgression.
The Keeper of Lost Causes is a supremely competent piece of film-making. Ninety-seven minutes long, it neither drags nor rushes and the progression from one scene to another is slick enough to ensure that the attention never wanders or lingers where it shouldn’t. The art direction is excellent throughout though it does recall Scandinavian TV a lot more than it does cinematic crime. Well-lit and atmospheric, the film effortlessly replicates the downbeat tone of Scandinavian noir while a couple of set-pieces depart sufficiently from the template to be both visually interesting and memorable. In short, the film looks and feels like a high-end piece of cinematic TV, which is a good deal more than could be said of comparable productions such as Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters or Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking. Despite this being only his second feature film, Mikkel Nørgaard does a thoroughy decent job with what amounts to some very thin material.
The Keeper of Lost Causes is an extraordinarily thin piece of writing. Not only is the main narrative linear and generic enough to be predictable but the film is entirely lacking in the kind of sub-plots that might have brought depth and nuance to the otherwise generic and one-dimensional characters. At one point, it seemed as though the disappearance might have had something to do with the shooting at the beginning of the film and that solving the case might have given the main protagonist some sense of psychological closure but no… he begins the film as an unpleasant stereotype and ends it as one too. On reflection, the only thing that this story really has to offer is the innovation of a villain who locks his victim in a pressure chamber but even this seems under-utilised as the only thing the villain ever does with the pressure chamber is use it to give his victim a bit of a headache.
The Keeper of Lost Causes is an entirely generic slice of Scandinavian noir that offers its audiences absolutely nothing that they will not have seen before in better films and TV series. Lacking in both inspiration and ambition, The Keeper of Lost Causes is a competent minor variation on a theme that is beginning to feel over-exploited and over-familiar. Entertaining enough, you do have to wonder how many more of these types of production are going to make it over to the UK before the market is completely saturated.