Sky TV review: Fortitude Episode 1
James R | On 29, Jan 2015
Fortitude is on Sky Atlantic tonight at 9pm. Click here to find out how to watch it online, with or without Sky.
If you thought it was cold in Britain this January, wait until you turn on Fortitude. Sky’s Arctic Circle drama (filmed in Iceland) is freezing to look at, a whirling blast of frosty landscapes and even frostier locals. It’s enough to make you walk slowly around the living room for fear of slipping over.
Slow is the key word for this series. Directed with patience by Sam Miller, it’s in no hurry to get anywhere fast. Not that there’s anywhere to go: located in the middle of nowhere, the residents of Fortitude are stuck, whether they chose to be or not. One of the only ways to leave is death.
It rears its head in the opening sequence, which sees a photographer (Michael Gambon) come across a polar bear attacking a man. Raising his rifle, he shoots the man in the head. Was he aiming for the bear? Does it matter? “Go home. Leave it all to me,” assures Sheriff Anderssen (Richard Dormer). What was he doing there in the first place?
It’s a bizarre opening that leaves your head ringing with questions, but Fortitude is only just warming up.
We soon meet all the townsfolk, from a husband and wife whose child has a strange illness to the local professor (Christopher Eccleston) who is researching… something. A newcomer arrives to help (Luke Treadaway), only to be greeted with a friendly grin. “You’ll need your own rifle,” the professor explains. “And a hat. Something groovy with ear flaps.”
The programme slips between strangely mysterious and darkly amusing with an icy unpredictability, one that immediately makes you feel uneasy. Everyone’s happy, we’re told. There’s no crime, we’re reassured. What’s the point of the Sheriff, then? Is he good or bad? “No one knows,” comes the reply.
And so we slide around in the sludge of uncertainty for an hour, trying to find our footing. It’s telling that this 12-part series begins with a feature-length first instalment (effectively Episode 1 and 2 sandwiched together), because it’s only halfway through that the inevitable murder happens. And unlike the bear incident at the start, it’s not left just to Sheriff Anderssen to sort out.
Enter DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci), who flies in from Scotland Yard to lead the police investigation. All terse authority, shiny head and pristine leather gloves, he couldn’t offer a more striking contrast to the gruesome corpse and bundled-up locals. Dormer’s hostile lawman is great fun to watch play off him, all facial hair and angry stares. Suddenly, we feel like we’re on solid ground: an outsider detective, a closed community where everyone’s familiar with everyone else, a murder to solve. It’s your typical crime drama. There’s even a local politician, Governor Odegard (the always excellent Sofie Gråbol from The Killing), trying to build a new hotel, who’d rather not have murder ruining her tourism industry – especially when the victim’s bound to be someone she knows.
But Fortitude isn’t your typical crime drama. Pitched by Sky as proof they can rival HBO and packing a reported budget of £25 million, the visuals alone are enough to set it apart from your average Midsomer Murders: shot beautifully by DoP John Conroy with an eye for the Icelandic sky, the Northern Lights glow gently in the background, as suspicion descends on the grey outhouses, and the sun shines with a brightness that only highlights the red blood that’s been spilled.
Simon Donald’s script, meanwhile, has a knack for thickening the air with intrigue that’s worthy of True Detective’s first chapters. As well as the host of dubious characters – who manage to be interesting people, rather than irritating stock types – the opening two hours introduces everything from mutated deers and extra-marital sex to disturbing pigs and strange artefacts beneath the ice. Who else is having affairs? What’s wrong with that boy’s toes? How did DCI Morton get there so quickly? And what exactly is that lurking under the surface?
It’s an impressively confident start, not least because Fortitude is happy to build up the atmosphere before it dishes out the exposition. As the show begins its slow exploration of the town’s chilling undercurrents, that sense of location gets under your scarf and blows down the back of your neck. More Brrrroadchurch than Broadchurch, the unfamiliar setting – so far from ITV’s Dorset coastline – makes the run-of-the-mill set-up seem appealingly alien, while the potential discoveries awaiting us feel equally capable of veering off into the unknown. In 10 episodes time, this crime drama could easily be a sci-fi thriller. It’s that same uncertainty of something new and unusual that Fortitude’s residents are having to face – and it leaves you wanting to go back for another visit.
As Gråbol’s politician tries to remain calm, she smiles at the visiting members of the press and talks about the polar bear population lurking all around them. “You can’t see them until they have you in their teeth,” she jokes. As the gradually gripping opener comes to a close, you’ll know exactly what she means.
You can watch Fortitude online in the UK without Sky on NOW for £6.99 a month. The monthly subscription gives you live and on-demand access to Sky’s pay TV channels, including Sky Atlantic (Mad Men and Togetherness), Sky 1 (Arrow and The Flash) and FOX TV (The Walking Dead) – with no contract.
Sky customers can watch Fortitude online live through Sky Go, or catch up on Sky On Demand.
Photos: ©2015 Sky/ Tiger Aspect Productions