Below the Surface: Non-Spoiler Review

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Photo montage of scenes from Below the Surface (2017-). Central image is a poster for the show.

🇩🇰 BELOW THE SURFACE 🇩🇰
by Gina Meardon

Below the Surface (2017-) aka Countdown Copenhagen and Gidseltagningen is a Danish drama-thriller. Season 1 is available on Amazon Prime U.K. for £9.99 to buy, Hulu USA. 8 x 44 min episodes in Danish and English with subtitles. Cert 15 UK.

Premise:

“On a rainy October morning, fifteen Danes have their lives turned upside down when the metro train they are travelling on is hijacked by unknown perpetrators, who will threaten to kill each them, one by one, if their demands aren’t met. This is the beginning of a historic hostage situation that, over course of one single week, changes Denmark forever. The official Denmark finds itself caught in a whirlwind. The politicians argue whether or not to negotiate with terrorists. In the press, there are discussions on where the line is drawn in portraying the captives and seeking out their families. Ordinary Danes are thinking that it could just as well have been them. Among the hostages, the thoughts vary between rebellion, negotiation and apathy, but one thought is shared by all: “Am I going to die now?” IMDb

Cast:

Johannes Lassen as Philip Nørgaard
Sara Hjort Ditlevsen as Louise Falck
Paprika Steen as Naja Toft
Jakob Oftebro as Alpha
Alba August as Marie
Jacob Lohmann as Jonas
Tommy Kenter as Leon
Dar Salim as Adel
Adnan Haskovic as Bravo
Sus Wilkins as Denise
Muhamed Hadzovic as Charlie
Michael Asmussen as Joachim
Anders Nyborg as Ricco
Allan Hyde as Silas
Henning Jensen as Henning Nørgaard
Alexandre Willaume as S.P.
Peder Thomas as Simon Clausen
Kenneth M. Christensen as Daniel Cramer
Esben Dalgaard as Esben Garnov
Peter Christoffersen as Torben
Jens Sætter-Lassen as Sammy
Henrik Prip as Palle Wulff

English-language poster for the series Below the Surface

Crew:

Writers: Kasper Barfoed (Creator, storyline, Astrid Øye, Michael W. Horsten, Per Daumiller, Lars Kristian Andersen
Directors: Kasper Barfoed, Christian E. Christiansen, Roni Ezra
Cinematographer: Niels A. Hansen
Original Music: Jeppe Kaas
Special Effects: Hummer Højmark
Visual Effects: Thomas Dyg, Patrick O’Casey
Stunts: Dennis Albrethsen, Rasmus Hedegaard Sørensen

Notes:

Kasper Barfoed also directed The Chestnut Man and has just completed directing Trom, the first-ever Faroese original drama series.

Adam Price, the creator of Ride Upon the Storm, Borgen and Ragnarok was an Executive Producer on this show.

Johannes Lassen and Sarah Hjort Ditlevsen again shared a love interest in The Lawyer (2018).

Danish poster for the series Below the Surface

Review:

Before I start, I know what you are thinking. At £9.99, this had better be worth the money! I could say it has a great cast (it has) and a really good plot (it has that also) but both are no good without quality writing and a director with the clear vision to pull it together. Well, between them Below the Surface’s writing team have written The Chestnut Man, Darkness: Those Who Kill, Norskov, The Killing, The Shooter, The Bridge and When the Dust Settles.

Are you still hesitating to spend the money?

A scene from Below the Surface

This is the second time I have watched Below the Surface and I am glad I returned. I loved it the first time around but then I had not seen When the Dust Settles and now I can see where that latest Danish export gets its blueprint. There are parallels, from the opening flashback sequence and attention to building the characters and lives of ALL those involved, including the chief negotiators, the hostages, the ambitious journalist and even the hostage-takers.

This approach means that you connect with their lives and also question what you would do, what decisions you would make in their position. You also find your sympathies stretched at times and maybe even change as events develop and some characters make poor choices with fatal consequences.

Johannes Lassen as Philip Nørgaard in a scene from Below the Surface

Each episode takes place over the course of a day. Johannes Lassen leads the cast as Philip Nørgaard, a decorated war hero who escaped his captures after 6 months held hostage in an unnamed location (but it is either Iraq or Syria). He is now head of PET’s Terror Task Force, but secretly struggling with PTSD after the trauma of his time in captivity, when they are scrambled after a commuter train is stopped in a tunnel early one morning and 15 hostages marched out of a carriage at gunpoint by 3 heavily armed captors. They are taken deep into the system of tunnels to a new station partially built which has been left uncompleted, and which the terrorists have already fortified and equipped with a hostage cage and provisions.

The demand for the release of all the hostages is just 4 million Euros, however, the Danish Government have a policy of not paying to release hostages. While Denmark, the hostage’s families and the wider world watches and hold their collective breaths, it is down to Philip and his team of negotiators, led by Esben Garnov and Louise Falck (Philip’s girlfriend), to gain the terrorists’ trust and negotiate safe release.

There is just one problem – or make that two. Alpha, the terrorist who appears to be in charge, has taken an instant dislike to Esben’s approach, instead, he decides to offer a live interview to popular television journalist Naja Toft, thus bypassing hostage negotiations.

Over the next few days, negotiations are frustrated by the events that occur as a result of the live interviews that Alpha insists upon. Naja Toft is at the centre of this because she has started a Crowdfund campaign on behalf of the relatives to raise the money to get the hostages out, and it is very clear that Alpha wants that money. What the task force cannot understand is why the sum involved is so small.

There is nothing for the hostages to do other than to sit quietly and talk to each other in the basic cage in which they are housed. They have rations and water, the 3 heavily armed terrorists are masked and speak in heavily-accented English and toilet breaks are monitored.

Under pressure, people react differently and very quickly it becomes clear the captors mean business and WILL make an example of dissenters. I must admit the first time I saw that I did actually shriek out “NO!” And the second time around was not much better.

I do not want to go too much more into the plot as I do not want to spoil it for anyone.

Below the Surface is a multi-layered drama and every episode moves the story forward. The episodes also reveal a character’s backstory via flashbacks, again very much like When the Dust Settles. Every character is there for a reason and, yes, there may be some stereotypical characters: the pretty girl who thinks she can ‘befriend’ the terrorist, the macho hero who will not listen to anyone else, the family man who starts to get increasingly irrational as the days go by – but then it would not be TV drama if there were none. At least here underground there are no female cops with relationship problems and neurotic teenage daughters!

The drive of Below the Surface is not so much about WHO the terrorists are – because that becomes clear by episode 6 – no, it is much more about the WHY. What led them to these actions? What event was so dreadful that it led to this crisis? And when the focus shifts to the WHY that is when you see the whole, tragic story unfold and the realisation dawn on Philip’s already fragile state of mind.

I have to say there is some pretty exceptional acting on display here and the whole cast is on top of their game with their characterisation. In fact, the first time I watched it I never realised Jakob Oftebro was Alpha until the point of him removing his face mask late in the drama!

Johannes Lassen won the Monte Carlo Golden Nymph award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series in 2018, for his role as Philip Nørgaard. This is one of the world’s top acting awards and, honestly, it was a thoroughly deserved win.

Paprika Steen (Naja Toft) was also nominated for a Golden Nymph at Monte Carlo (for outstanding Actress in a Drama TV Series). Alba August as Marie, Lane Lind as Bodil, Michael Asmussen as Joachim and especially Tommy Kenter as the lonely Leon – whose backstory is especially poignant – are all deserving of mention.

I have realised, after reflecting upon Below the Surface that the staging of the cage and the conditions of how the hostages were kept was a deliberate decision by Alpha, the reasons for which will be obvious, I think, by the end. Talking of the end, even though I knew what was coming it still got me, more than the first time of watching it if I am honest because on a second watch you do pick up on so much more. I did shed a tear.

The tragedy of war and politics is that human beings become lost and expendable, collateral damage is forgotten but actions have consequences that, in this case, led to Below the Surface, Gidseltagningen, Operation Copenhagen.

Would I recommend this Below the Surface? Most definitely, it is Danish drama at its best.

Awards:

Won:

Monte Carlo TV Festival (2018) Outstanding Actor in a Drama TV Series ~ Johannes Lassen

Nominated:

Copenhagen TV Festival (2018) TV Prisen, Best Television Series

Danish Film Awards (Robert, 2018) Best Supporting Actress – TV Series ~ Alba August

Monte Carlo TV Festival (2018) Golden Nymph Best Drama TV Series; Golden Nymph Outstanding Actress in a Drama TV Series ~ Paprika Steen

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