Between Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge and their ilk, the bleakness of the Scandinavian thriller has become a mainstay of international television over the past decade, each of these not only imported but inspiring English languages remakes in the countries where they have been so well received. Now courtesy of Arrow’s Nordic Noir and Beyond label comes the complete season of Heartless, a supernatural thriller set in an elite Danish boarding school.
Twins Sebastian and Sofie Nielsen (Sebastian Jessen and Julie Zangenberg) are not all they appear to be; since their early teens they have realised that they need to “suck,” to feed on the life energy of another in order to survive, but the danger is terrible. While their victim is normally too disoriented to understand what has taken place and report the assault, if they should overfeed their victim will die, consumed by flames.
The longer they have gone without feeding, the greater the urgency and the less control they have, and so the greater the danger of exposure and of killing those upon whom they feed. Raised as orphans, they decide to try to uncover their family history, first to the orphanage where they were abandoned, then enrolling as students at Ottman’s Boarding School where they believe their mother once attended, their only clue the heart tattoo they have been told she had on her wrist.
“We have tradition and rituals,” they are told, the rule strictly enforced by the three prefects, chief among them the arrogant Ditlev (When Animal’s Dream‘s Gustav Dyekjær Giese) who takes a particularly unwelcome interest in Sofie and the calculating Pieter (True Blood‘s Allan Hyde), Sebastian’s dictatorial roommate who looks upon him as inferior.
Run by headmaster Henrik Just (The Killing‘s Nicolaj Kopernikus) with the assistance of his prim and joyless eldest daughter Ida (The Bridge‘s Katrine Rosenthal), the younger daughters share classes with those boarding at the school but are not encouraged to mix with them, but wilful Emilie (Julie Christiansen) sees it as her duty to defy her father in every way possible.
Having stood for two hundred and seventy years, the school building has a history, the tragic story of Gertrud Ottman, wife of Christian, the Black Count, pregnant with his child, and of Christian’s lover, the peasant girl Ane, also pregnant, who in 1666 was burned at the stake as a witch by the command of Gertrud.
With her dying breath Ane cursed the Ottman family who withered and faded, Gertrud herself losing her mind and drowning herself in the lake, the mansion passing to the custodianship of the Just family.
Gertrud Ottman’s persecution of witches is remembered in the Moor Christening, the same night their mother disappeared on twenty years earlier, the initiation ceremony for new pupils which involves the girls being thrown into the lake, the night where legend has it that a ghost will appear on the school grounds.
Whether she wants to participate or not, the malicious Ditlev is determined that Sofie is going in the water, and despite the explicit instruction of her father Emelie will also be there, while Sebastian is nearby, seeking sustenance…
Hazily shot in soft focus with a pop goth soundtrack, the school setting populated by a twenty-something cast trying to pass themselves off as teenagers is too reminiscent of the astonishingly bad Hex, the unloved and unmissed show originally promoted as “Britain’s answer to Buffy,” the only possible conclusion from which was that Sky One had misheard the question in the first place.
Heartless at least cannot even begin to approach that level of awful, boasting better production values, superior acting all around and a more coherent premise, though even with only eight episodes it does meander, spending too much time going in circles and focusing on tantrums, angst and broken teenage hearts rather than progressing the minimal plot.
The rule stating that male and female students are not allowed in the wings of the school occupied by their opposite number result in an inordinate number of secret conversations between Sebastian and Sofie taking place in corridors, stairwells or the school library, yet their discretion is minimal, nor is it explained how they have so easily enrolled themselves in the prestigious and expensive private school where fencing lessons are mandatory and which houses its own stables.
None of the characters are particularly likeable, Sofie pushy to the point of mercenary to get what she wants, and Sebastian, wearing an expression of perpetual disapproval, too easily emulating the attitude of the prefects towards the women, treating them as vessels for his entertainment and satisfaction in the same way he has done with those upon whom he has fed, yet still both Sofie’s roomate Nadja and to a lesser extent the kitchen assistant Josefine become besotted by him.
While likeable characters are not a necessity, especially in the murky undercurrents of Scandi drama, nor are they unlikeable in particularly interesting ways, and the randomly inserted flashbacks to 1666 only serve to slow up events, failing to illustrate dramatic points in the present until well over half way into the story.
The second disc noticeably increases the pace as it becomes apparent that the Just family are very much tied to the history of the school and the daughters begin to exercise their own powers, becoming tangled with Sebastian and Sofie’s efforts to discover who they are, though significant events do somewhat seem to fit around the lesson plan for the day and the endless rounds of after school activities and parties.
While not as compelling or rewarding as its frosty northern siblings, Heartless does have the advantage of being a complete story which wraps up with only minimal loose ends within the eight episodes, and certainly with audiences of a certain age it should have its appeal; had it reined itself in more tightly or aimed its ambition higher, it could certainly have broadened that appeal to become a worthy addition to the genre.
Heartless is released on DVD on Monday 18th April by Arrow