Canada comes up with its own chilling ver­sion of Scandi noir, set amid the eerily beau­ti­ful ice and snow

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Car­di­nal,

SBS On De­mand, dubbed “the free Net­flix” by some, has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing its best-per­form­ing weeks on record, led by the ex­clu­sive Aus­tralian pre­miere of ac­claimed dystopian drama The Hand­maid’s Tale. To build on this pre­mium pro­gram­ming op­tion, it has launched Crime Time, com­plete sea­sons of ex­clu­sive in­ter­na­tional dra­mas de­but­ing ev­ery Thurs­day un­til Septem­ber.

Yes, you will have to en­dure the in­ap­pro­pri­ately placed, highly repet­i­tive com­mer­cials, strangely mu­tat­ing changes in con­trast on your tele­vi­sion set and ir­ri­tat­ing breaks in stream­ing — those black spa­ces that come from nowhere, doubt­less the prod­uct of some in­sane al­go­rithm — but the pay-off is worth it.

Ti­tles in­clude Valkyrien, a high-con­cept Nor­we­gian drama about a doc­tor op­er­at­ing an il­le­gal hos­pi­tal in an un­used un­der­ground Oslo metro sta­tion; Berlin Sta­tion from creator and writer Olen Steinhauer, a best­selling spy nov­el­ist adept at ex­plor­ing the para­noid sub­cul­ture of es­pi­onage; and Farang, Swedish noir set in Thai­land.

First up, though, is Car­di­nal from Canada, not a coun­try we as­so­ci­ate with high-end edgy se­rial sto­ry­telling, with its lo­cal in­dus­try mainly fo­cused on episodic, closed-end dra­mas and Canuck makeover shows, ap­point­ment tele­vi­sion for mil­lions of tit­il­lated Cana­di­ans and Life­style chan­nels across the world.

The New York Times re­cently de­clared that “It doesn’t look Cana­dian”, per­haps the high­est com­pli­ment in Cana­dian tele­vi­sion drama. “North­ern chan­nel surfers, reared on the more ex­pen­sive Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion shows that flood Cana­dian net­works, im­me­di­ately recog­nise jerky pac­ing, sparse sets and fuzzy film stock as dis­tinctly homegrown.”

A few years ago, two shows did break the mould and found small­ish au­di­ences here. The Bor­der was a ter­rific ac­tion drama, star­ring Sofia Mi­los, about an elite Toronto im­mi­gra­tion and cus­toms tac­ti­cal team, which aired around Fox­tel for a pe­riod. And there was Durham County on the ABC, in which Hugh Dil­lon starred as Mike Sweeney, a homi­cide de­tec­tive who had just moved his fam­ily to town for a new start. There was a pal­pa­ble sense of alien­ation in the se­ries, a men­ac­ing at­mos­phere dark­ened by a toxic en­vi­ron­ment and a hos­tile com­mu­nity.

Car­di­nal, though, is stronger, more ac­com­plished and am­bi­tious, with a kind of plan­gent un­der­cur­rent that sets it apart, though its creators do an ex­cel­lent job of keep­ing you vis­ually en­ter­tained. The six-part se­ries is adapted from the award-win­ning novel Forty Words for Sor­row, the first of six best­selling crime nov­els by On­tario na­tive and award-win­ning au­thor Giles Blunt. The ti­tle is taken from a re­mark by the novel’s lachry­mose cen­tral fig­ure, po­lice de­tec­tive John Car­di­nal: “Eski­mos, it is said, have 40 dif­fer­ent words for snow.” Never mind about snow, Car­di­nal mused, “what peo­ple re­ally need is 40 words for sor­row”.

The novel launched Blunt’s ca­reer, with the Cana­dian mag­a­zine The Wal­rus call­ing it “the best Cana­dian crime thriller ever writ­ten” and Bri­tain’s Crime Writ­ers As­so­ci­a­tion hand­ing Blunt its Sil­ver Dag­ger award.

The nov­els, pro­ce­du­rals writ­ten with some lit­er­ary flour­ish, have been praised for the “dev­as­tat­ing pre­ci­sion” with which Blunt in­ter­laces strands of lives both led and taken in the tiny Cana­dian town of Al­go­nquin Bay, and as re­viewer Kathy Flynn sug­gested, for “limn­ing a haunt­ingly para­dox­i­cal pic­ture of iso­la­tion and com­mu­nity, two sides of a frag­ile bul­wark against vi­o­lence”.

Flynn’s use of the slightly ar­chaic but lovely word “limn­ing” — to de­scribe some­thing in paint­ing, to suf­fuse or high­light with colour or light — is per­cep­tively ap­pro­pri­ate not only for the nov­els but this pro­duc­tion, which is di­rected with skill by Daniel Grou, who quite beau­ti­fully coun­ter­points the vast white, freez­ing ex­te­ri­ors with sepia-tinted, for­bid­ding in­te­ri­ors. The wide-shot aerial footage is stun­ning.

Grou shot the highly re­garded Cana­dian cop show The Wire- like 19-2, un­seen here so far, about which The New York Times said: “The writ­ing is sub­lime, turn­ing each episode into a sort of tone poem, a slice of ur­ban and po­lice life care­fully ob­served.”

Adapted by Aubrey Nealon ( Or­phan Black, Sav­ing Hope) and set dur­ing a freez­ing Cana­dian win­ter, Car­di­nal is an­other vari­a­tion on the po­lice pro­ce­dural and also a fine psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. Our at­trac­tion to all-too-hu­man cops grap­pling with per­sonal and eth­i­cal is­sues not only in their work but in their lives seems in­ex­haustible. But this who­dunit is as much about the emo­tional ef­fect of ter­ri­ble events on the com­mu­nity in which they oc­cur, and the re­la­tion­ship to death and be­reave­ment of those that live within it.

De­tec­tive Car­di­nal (Billy Camp­bell) of the Al­go­nquin Bay (On­tario) Po­lice Depart­ment, burly, bearded and pos­sessed of a low-pitched voice in which he mut­ters softly rather than talks, is in “cop ex­ile” from the homi­cide team as the se­ries starts, check­ing break-and-en­try crimes. Six months be­fore the se­ries be­gins, he was re­lieved of a homi­cide in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter a fruit­less and ex­pen­sive quest for Katie Pine, a 13-year-old Chippewa girl who dis­ap­peared from a reser­va­tion. He is a by-the-rules vet­eran who can’t stom­ach fools, a tru­cu­lence re­lieved by a droll sense of hu­mour.

Car­di­nal was the only cop who be­lieved Katie had not sim­ply run away but was the vic­tim of a se­rial killer. But ask­ing too many ques­tions too ob­ses­sively had him tossed off homi­cide, the en­tire depart­ment scep­ti­cal of his anal­y­sis. That, along with the fact that, af­ter fall­ing asleep one night at the wheel while driv­ing home dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, he crashed into a dump­ster. He is some­what vin­di­cated when Katie’s body is dis­cov­ered in the shaft-head of an aban­doned mine by a fos­sick­ing fish­er­man driv­ing an ice sled on Windigo Is­land.

The crime scene se­quences in the wide ex­panse of ice, the ab­stract po­etry of all the white-suited foren­sic po­lice, are both beau­ti­ful to look at and filled with a kind of aching sor­row. Like so much of this se­ries, the scene where the body, en­tombed in a huge block of ice, is lifted by crane is breath­tak­ing.

Car­di­nal is as­signed to work on the case with De­tec­tive Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse), from the Of­fice of Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tion, and they slowly try to trace what hap­pened to the girl. But as Car­di­nal is es­tab­lished as a de­cent, hard­work­ing, em­pa­thetic pro­fes­sional, it be­comes clear that all is not what it seems. Delorme has been drafted from In­ter­nal Af­fairs to clan­des­tinely in­ves­ti­gate whether her new part­ner has been ac­cept­ing money from Kyle Cor­bett, who con­trols the nar­cotics trade north of Toronto, in or­der to de­rail a se­ries of con­cur­rent Moun­ties’ in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the drug lord.

Then foren­sics re­veals there is ev­i­dence of lig­a­ture marks on Katie Pine’s wrists and legs, and abra­sions to her re­main­ing eye socket, a specu­lum used to force her eyes open. She was made to watch her killer as she died. They soon sus­pect there may be a con­nec­tion be­tween Katie’s dis­ap­pear­ance and the drown­ing of an­other child, Billy La­Belle. Then teenager Todd Curry is re­ported miss­ing.

Car­di­nal is an in­trigu­ing char­ac­ter car­ry­ing a great deal of heart­break. His wife, Cather­ine (Deb­o­rah Hay), is in and out of in­sti­tu­tions be­cause of a bipo­lar con­di­tion. He lives alone in their sparsely il­lu­mi­nated house, eat­ing ce­real for din­ner with red wine, ly­ing on the lounge star­ing at pho­tos of young peo­ple who have dis­ap­peared. But what is the stash he vis­its in the crawl space of his house af­ter an an­i­mal dies there af­ter chew­ing the wiring? And what is be­hind the drop he re­ceives in the mid­dle of the night from a man, whom he pays in cash?

The se­ries was largely filmed in Sud­bury and North Bay on the shore of Lake Nipiss­ing, On­tario, the city stand­ing in for Al­go­nquin Bay, and Blunt’s use of the area, with its mix of First Na­tions, English and French Cana­di­ans, is cru­cial to his nov­els as well as this se­ries. Writer Nealon, di­rec­tor Grou and his cin­e­matog­ra­pher Steve Cosens es­tab­lish the Arc­tic land­scape in a way that de­fines the phys­i­cal con­text of the story — the des­o­late, eerily still set­ting a key fac­tor in de­ter­min­ing the drama’s height­ened il­lu­sion of re­al­ity.

Here, as in the best of con­tem­po­rary TV drama such as Broad­church, The Bridge, Hin­ter­land or Break­ing Bad, place is fate. As the critic David Stubbs sug­gests, dis­cussing the evo­lu­tion of the genre and how there is “a dif­fer­ent, darker, more grimly im­mer­sive am­bi­ence” to to­day’s pro­ce­dural, these land­scapes are both “a silent wit­ness and bearer of ter­ri­ble se­crets”.


stream­ing on SBS On De­mand.

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