VOD film review: The Absent One
James R | On 05, Jun 2016
Director: Mikkel Nørgaard
Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares
Say “Department Q” to most people and they might think you’re talking about a James Bond film, but to fans of Scandinavian noir, the words conjure up an entirely different image: a grubby underground office and a grouchy police detective.
Yes, The Absent One is the second in a series of screen adaptations of the Department Q novels by Jussi Adler-Olsen. They follow a Copenhagen police unit that specialises in cold cases – the kind of thing we’re now used to seeing on our televisions. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes aside, detective franchises are few and far between on the big screen these days, with crime flicks tending to be either police actioners or buddy cop comedies.
It’s a refreshing change of pace, then, to fall back in with Department Q’s Carl Mørck (Kaas) and Assad (Fares), three years after The Keeper of Lost Causes hit cinemas. This time around, the odd couple find themselves investigating the deaths of two young twins twenty years ago – a murder that seems to be linked to a nearby boarding school. What follows is a fairly straight-forward case, but as with the first Department Q mystery, it’s told with just enough style and pace to keep you gripped from start to finish.
Sure enough, a long-forgotten emergency telephone call turns up, along with some other skeletons from the past, but the script smartly balances the token overlooked witness plot with revelations from the time the crime took place. Penned by Nikolaj Arcel, who directed A Royal Affair and has adapted three Department Q novels in total, the jumping between present day and flashbacks is as smooth as ever, ensuring that the story becomes more complex as it goes on, while also exploring the consequences of historical events two decades on – it’s a treat to see A War’s Pilou Asbæk pop up as a slick, wealthy former student of the school, not least because it adds an edge of social commentary to proceedings.
Mikkel Nørgaard, also returning after The Keeper of Lost Causes, directs with an efficiency that’s not as flashy as, say, David Fincher’s Dragon Tattto, but is easy to underrate; Nørgaard keeps the past and present visually distinct and even managing to introduce more sordid elements of school life without descending into sleazy, trashy territory. It helps that our lead actors work so well together: Nikolaj Lie Kaas is wonderfully grumpy as Mørck, while Fares Fares remains amusingly upbeat as his perpetually chirpy sidekick. The introduction of Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt) as their new secretary, meanwhile, helps to beef up the Department’s staff count and keep that central dynamic from becoming stale.
While they’re becoming more like a proper police unit, though, Department Q remains the laughing stock of the overall police force – and that kind of running narrative thread is what makes The Absent One such an enjoyable watch. Much like a Scandi series, there’s a familiarity that allows for humour and character to develop over time. Unlike a Scandi series, though, you don’t have to work through several episodes, week after week. Closer to a BBC or ITV mini-series, the result is a two-hour slice of comfortable, but highly competent, crime storytelling that arrives long enough after the first instalment to stand alone in its own right. All the benefits of Scandinavian noir, but with none of the binge-viewing? Roll on number three.