Lighting up The Darkness

Lighting up The Darkness

By Michael Pickard
May 24, 2024


Nordic noir goes international in The Darkness, an English-language Icelandic series based on Ragnar Jónasson’s books featuring detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir. Director Lasse Hallström and executive producer Lindsey Martin explain how the show pushes the boundaries of the genre and talk about filming with star Lena Olin.

Lasse Hallström’s directing career has taken him from shooting music videos for Abba to Hollywood, collecting credits including The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

The filmmaker also dabbled in television production, most notably when he was starting out in his native Sweden. But it’s his latest project that has proven to be his biggest ever commitment to the small screen, helming all six episodes of English-language Icelandic series The Darkness.

Based on the first book in Ragnar Jónasson’s trilogy of novels featuring Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir, the series follows Hulda as she investigates a shocking murder case while coming to terms with her own personal traumas. Faced with an impending early retirement and forced to take on a new partner, she becomes determined to find the killer, even if it means putting her own life in danger.

Lindsey Martin

“It’s an incredible piece of source material from Ragnar, and the novel has resonated all across Europe,” executive producer Lindsey Martin tells DQ. “What really struck us about the story and his way of storytelling was this really beautiful lyricism. It was very emotional through the point of view of the characters, which is honestly what made us think of Lasse right away, because that’s what comes through in all of his films. He’s really brought out that lyricism and has made it feel so cinematic. He’s really elevated it above a [traditional] detective thriller.”

“I’m really interested in performance and grounding stories in real life, and what a character can do to the story. The character depiction is so important,” Hallström says. “It was a wonderful experience to have a strong plot but also [a series] where you could actually spend time on character detail, which is rare because sometimes working in the US, they tend to sacrifice character for that plot. But it didn’t happen here.”

Audiences might be familiar with female-led detective series coming out of Scandinavia, with Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Bron/Broen (The Bridge) among the most high profile. But Martin says Hulda – played by Lena Olin (Riviera) – brings something different to the crime genre.

“Hulda is someone we felt we really hadn’t seen on TV before,” she explains. “She’s a woman of a certain age who’s being pushed out of the workforce in her prime, and there’s something really interesting about that inner conflict for a character who is able and wants to keep going and is finding herself coming up against the system in some ways.

“I’d also like to say this is a role Lena was born to play. She’s incredibly electric on screen. She has this intensity and this vulnerability, and those two go hand in hand with the character of Hulda. She really lights up the screen in every scene and brings this character to life in a way we could have only dreamed of on the page.”

Starring alongside Jack Bannon (Pennyworth), Douglas Henshall (Shetland), Björn Hlynur Haraldsson (A Gentleman in Moscow), Thorsteinn Bachmann (Katla), Þorvaldur Davíð Kristjánsson (The Minister), Tora Hallström (Hilma), Ahd Tamimi (River City) and Árni Þór Lárusson, Olin (pictured in The Darkness at the top of this page) also got the chance to experiment with the material and put her own mark on Hulda, who is always at the heart of the series.

Lasse Hallström

“One of the most wonderful parts of the experience was to see Lena flourish every day as the character and to be able to see her play around with the material every day for four months,” Hallström says. “It was fantastic. It put us even closer together. I’m an admirer.”

As well he might be. The Darkness isn’t the first time Hallström and Olin have worked together on a project, most notably partnering on films such as Hilma, Hypnotisören, Casanova and Chocolat. And they’ve also been married for more than 30 years.

“We have a wonderful habit of not arguing at work. We save that for other times,” Hallström jokes, “so it’s been wonderful – and she loves direction. It’s just amazing to hear her gratitude when I steer her in some directions or tell her my point of view of things. She’s wonderfully respectful on set in a way that maybe doesn’t match the way we interact when we come home, if you know what I’m saying. But it’s been fantastic.”

The director also praises the scripts, written by Sam Shore (Mystic). “He has written a dialogue that was impeccable and could be acted out and spelled out almost verbatim,” Hallström notes. “There was not too much time or necessity for improvising, which usually is what I do to make performances come alive.

“CBS and Lindsey, above all, have also invited me to be part of this through the process, which doesn’t happen with these types of series. I shoot in a way that demands I have an eye on the edit – it’s not easy to distil the scenes after all the material I shoot – and I was allowed to have an eye on the edit. I am really grateful for Lindsey allowing me to do that.”

Martin, who is senior VP of international coproductions and development at CBS Studios, responds: “Lasse from day one has had such a clear point of view on these characters, especially these strong female characters. He’s really had a point of view on their backstories, what’s important to them and what’s driving them. He managed to keep that front and centre in every episode, through shooting and through the edit. He’s really crystallised his vision when it comes to these characters.”

Filmed on location in Reykjavik, The Darkness is the latest international series to come from US producer CBS Studios, following in the footsteps of Colin From Accounts, Munich Games, Bestseller Boy and NCIS: Sydney. On this occasion, the firm has partnered with Stampede Ventures and Iceland’s Truenorth (The Valhalla Murders) to set up the series with Icelandic streamer Síminn, while Paramount Global Content Distribution is handling worldwide sales.

International buyers were able to catch the first episode at the LA Screenings this week ahead of the show’s launch later this year.

Hallström is best known for directing features such as 2000’s Oscar-nominated Chocolat

Shore came on board after Martin read one of his scripts, a mystery thriller set in New Zealand, that she found shared a similar atmosphere and tone to The Darkness. Then as the series moved towards production, Hallström and Olin also signed up.

Underneath the development was a desire for The Darkness to stand apart from the Nordic noir series viewers are now familiar with the world over. “From day one, we wanted it to feel more propulsive,” Martin says. “We wanted audiences to be on the edge of their seat from the beginning. We wanted to play with the pace a little bit more and make sure we were off and running, which is something I do think we’ve managed to achieve. It feels quite different in tone, in pace, in the storytelling, while still paying homage to some of the landmarks of the Nordic noir genre, and Iceland itself.

“It’s an incredible host country. The crews are so professional, and the government makes it a very friendly place to shoot, so that bit of it has come together really nicely. We ended up exactly where we wanted to be with a real filmmaker-driven, propulsive thriller series, with a fantastic performance at the heart.”

CBS Studios will return to Iceland this year to shoot another series, historical drama King & Conqueror, which has already been acquired by the BBC for UK audiences. But The Darkness shoot marked Hallström’s first visit to the country. “I’d never been there, so of course I was really taken by the landscape, and the landscape is such an integral part of the story, Hulda’s character and Icelandic life in general,” he says. “There’s some mystery there, and a spiritual aspect that I hope comes across in the series that is inherent in the landscape in Iceland. Hopefully that’ll be an undercurrent in the story.”

One factor that will ensure The Darkness does stand out from its Nordic noir peers is the fact it has been recorded in English. Martin says that choice was influenced by the wide international readership of Jónasson’s novels, meaning it made sense to film in English.

The Darkness star Lena Olin’s other credits include Riviera

“Having such an esteemed director at the helm, like Lasse, also gives it that cinematic touch that you don’t always find in the Nordic noir genre, and certainly from a storytelling perspective, it’s more propulsive,” she continues. “It’s faster paced, it’s a very tight six episodes, with a fantastic ensemble cast. We really do think it will resonate globally.”

Martin is confident the use of English does still feel “organic” against the show’s Icelandic setting. “Reykjavik is an international place with a lot of very organic English, and our story is very cross-cultural,” she says. “We’re dealing with immigration issues, trafficking issues. It’s not a purely Icelandic cast of characters. It is rather seamless in that way. We’ve made a very conscious effort not to position ourselves as an Icelandic drama. This is an international series, so it should feel that way. As long as the English-language element of it is organic and not forced then we’ve achieved that.”

As the finishing touches are being made to the final episodes in post-production, Hallström is preparing to make his next feature film this summer. But he will gladly return to television in the future. “I would be happy to go back to this type of television series where you get time to develop rich performances and with a script and a crime story that is wonderfully paced and still doesn’t sacrifice character,” he says. “Yes, please. I’ll do it again.”

Martin is also hopeful viewers will get to see more of Hulda after this initial season. “This is designed to be a returning series,” she says. “There are three novels in the Hulda trilogy and we would all love to get back into Hulda’s world as quickly as possible.”

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