Canada comes up with its own chilling version of Scandi noir, set amid the eerily beautiful ice and snow
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”.
THE CRIME SCENE SEQUENCES ARE BEAUTIFUL TO LOOK AT AND FILLED WITH AN ACHING SORROW
streaming on SBS On Demand.