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Scandi noir for everyone | The Express Tribune

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This is the first time I watched Swedish content, even though I’m not a big fan of dubbed stuff, but previously I quite enjoyed Cable Girls, Lupin, Money Heist and Call My Agent because European shows have a unique way of story-telling. Although The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Snowman, The Killing are English-language adaptations of tremendously popular Nordic works.

What initially attracted me to A Nearly Normal Family (ANNF), originally titled 'En Helt Vanlig Familj' was the title which suggested that most-likely, the story is about a dysfunctional family. I enjoy watching shows and films about dysfunctional families such as Shameless or As Good As It Gets or A Man Called Otto because the characters are often quirky and eccentric so their stories tend to be off-beat.

Having watched enough shows and films to know when a show is setting me up, I usually know in the first 15 minutes, if I’m going to watch the rest of it or not. I’m not inflexible about what genre the show or film might be categorised as, but I do have zero tolerance for predictability. If I get an inkling of a somewhat familiar character in a half-known situation, I flick over to watch something else. While watching shows, I can usually suss out that information is purposely being withheld from the viewers/audience in order to prolong the central mystery. Sometimes I go along for the ride, especially for a favourite actor, to see how he/she will lend himself/herself to the build-up, but if ride involves a lot of misdirection, and scenes go into long-winded elaboration with storytelling gimmicks being used, I flick over.

I love to be tied up in shackles, to be chained, imprisoned and frozen by shows that do not allow me to reach out for the remote. I find myself watching open-mouthed, as my breathing following the exact breathing pattern of the actor in the scene. I forget everything else in the world and I get into the scene myself. This is exactly the kind of soul-grabbing show I enjoy watching — where the story is structured in such a way that I actually forget where the remote control is, and there is no need for popcorn. So with minimal expectation, this is how ANNF turned out to be.

Directed by Per Hanefjord and with a script by Anna Platt and Hans Jörnlind, the show is unpretentious, it doesn’t take you for a ride and delivers more than your expectation. Think about flicking over, naah, you actually lose the remote.

The first scene begins with a close shot of a woman in a one-on-one conversation, perhaps a psychiatrist, rubbing her hands saying, “Sounds like you have a complicated relationship with your parents. Has it always been this way?” The young woman being asked [who is also in the promo poster] has a pained expression on her face. This is Stella Sandell played by Alexandra Karlsson Tyrefors, a 22-year-old Swedish actress and the mini-series is a story about her and her family.

In the next scene a younger Stella is off to a handball training camp and her parents — Adam (Björn Bengtsson), a priest, and Ulrika (Lo Kauppi), a lawyer —have come to see her off as she gets into the bus. Stella sits next to her best friend Amina Besic (Melisa Ferhatovic), and excited and happy to be at camp together, they spot and ogle at the new young coach Robin (Christoffer Willén) with fun and banter. You can pin this moment in your head.

At camp, Stella feels attracted to Robin and vice versa. She suggests they go for a swim after the first practice session. After they splash around in the cold water, some intimacy develops and they go inside an empty cottage nearby, where Robin rapes Stella, who protests but becomes frozen in fright. Pin this too.

When the two of them are discovered in the cottage by whoever it belongs to, Stella is sent home. Shocked, she tells her parents about the assault. Her father insists they report it, but her mother disagrees, especially as the medical exam doesn’t show physical evidence. She believes Stella, but as an experienced lawyer she feels that pressing charges will lead to an invasive investigation that will be even more traumatic for her daughter. From here onwards the lives of the Sandell family will never be the same.

This was the point in the film where I felt that this situation set faraway in Lund, Stockholm, in Swedan, strangely resonated with our culture where rape and assault on young women and men are not reported for the same reason, in addition to torturous social pressure the the victim and families have to go through.

The characters in ANNF reflect shades of grey, but you feel empathic and forgiving towards them because they strive towards their greater goal to make sure true justice is served in a horrific situation that is not only difficult but almost impossible to explain in court, where everything is intimidating, cold and impersonal.

Life goes on and four years later, Stella who works at a bakery to save money for travel, runs into a fellow called Christoffer Olsen (Christian Fandango Sundgren) and they start seeing each other.

While the book ANNF by Mattias Edvardsson on which the series is based [and which I’m now dying to read] is divided into three sections, each comprising the perspective of Adam, Stella, and Ulrika, respectively — the miniseries darts back and forth between the three perspectives of the Sandell family members.

Hence it is six weeks gone by, and the story develops from the parents’ perspectives. On an regular weeknight with, Adam is home alone, making dinner, Stella is out and Ulrika suddenly wants to step out saying it’s an emergency at work, but she forgets her employee card behind which Adam discovers. Later on, the same night, Adam wakes up in the middle of the night, while his wife is asleep next to him, he finds Stella downstairs, clutching bloodstained clothes.

To pile on tension for the audience, here the director cleverly positions a scene where on his way to the church, Adam passes by a small building where someone has been murdered.

It turns out that Ulrika is cheating on her Adam with her fellow lawyer Mikael Blomberg (Håkan Bengtsson) who calls her to break news that Stella has been arrested and accused of murdering a man named Christoffer Olsen. He also warns her that the police are on their way over to search the Sandells’ house.

Searching for some tell-tale sign, Ulrika finds a bag of Stella’s blood-stained clothes under the bed which she puts in her handbag. The following scene absolutely kills with suspense because Ulrika takes the handbag full of evidence to the police station where she is being interrogated.

Interestingly, ANNF is not about dysfunctional families. It is about something that could go wrong with any ordinary family in the world that would make it somewhat dysfunctional because the traumatic event that happened remained unresolved because it was not processed in the way that it should have been. The trauma not only stayed with the victim, but also the near and dear ones. Stella’s assault experience at camp at 15 had created a rift among the Sandells, and it is played out much later in the series.

Right till the end of the series, we don’t really know if Stella really murdered Christoffer or is she falsely accused. We don’t know what the dodgy and mysterious Ulrika knows or doesn’t know and I will spare you this spoiler.

There is no eye candy in the series, and there are no stars, yet the cast could n’t be more suited to their characters who are supposed to be just some ordinary people in ordinary lives.

Another beautiful aspect of the series is that experiences of each member of the Sandell family regarding this turn of events are portrayed in depth. The outcome of the investigation or the verdict affects the whole family and what each character takes home from the verdict is portrayed through subtle but powerful nuances. You can relate to the feelings of all three characters who experience a variety of emotions as each family member attempts to react and resolve the tragic event that occurs along with its multiple repercussions. For a little bit, you become Adam and experience what he feels, then you become Ulrika and feel what she went through and then you feel what Stella is experiencing.

Sundgren’s role as Chris, the horrible controlling young man who drugs girls to take their advantage and forces them for inappropriate pictures, while maintaining the façade of a besotted lover was not an easy one and he delivered it fabulously.

The series is so raw and real with flawless voice work so that not once does the dub distract from the substance of the show. The side plot at the end with Amina’s character gaining momentum was unpredictable. The six-part series does not falter at any of the turns, twists and right till the end, it keeps you hooked.

This Swedish series is excellent and thought provoking. The plot moves seamlessly from one episode to the next from the beginning to the end.

The flawed, dysfunctional and at times even unhappy characters in the Sandell family are so relatable and credible because of the story-writer’s empathy towards violence against women, and the universal and thought-provoking theme about a fractured family unit and their struggle to heal and become stronger and closer to each other.

Also, I must mention here that this may have been the first time that I watched Swedish content, but it is certainly not the last.

 

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