For those who have so far found the second series of Broadchurch to be a tepid and increasingly contrived disappointment, Sky Atlantic’s new icy crime drama Fortitude might just be the perfect alternative. Part of the channel’s recent push to broaden its horizons and produce homegrown content on a par with HBO heavy-hitters like Game of Thrones, the artic circle-set drama has all the familiar tropes of a moody whodunnit, but crucially injects them with new-life to create something that is eerie, absorbing and palpably chilling.
The title refers to the name of the isolated town where the series is set. While other dramas have previously exposed the dark underbelly of a seemingly idyllic town, Fortitude immediately distinguishes itself by centring the drama in a place that feels tantalisingly alien.
Filmed partly on location in Iceland – a popular movie stand-in for apocalypse-ruined planets – the series is shrouded in a powerful sense of the otherworldly with a menacing contrast between the virgin-white snowcaps and the dark, primordial ooze that lurks beneath the permafrost creating a constant feeling of unease that is only amplified by the increasing hints of the supernatural as the plot draws on.
Surrounded on all sides by insurmountable glaciers and impenetrable blizzards, Fortitude is a boiling pot of small-town paranoia that is poised to erupt, Sofie Grabol’s Governor Odegaard’s controversial plan to reinvent the town as an upmarket tourist destination is merely the tip of the iceberg of unspoken tension and personal conflicts that is brewing among the town’s denizens.
Odegaard may like to claim that her home is the “safest place on Earth” – despite every resident being required to carry a gun for protection from a ferocious polar bear population – but the claustrophobic paranoia that is inherent of such an isolated community is plainly a recipe for disaster and it’s only a matter of time before a sudden dark event shatters the fragile peace.
The arrival of violence and trauma in a previously peaceful community is, of course, nothing new in television, but Fortitude’s USP is its steady, hypnotic pacing. Whereas shows like Broadchurch and The Missing looked to drag viewers in their world with an unexpected jolt of horror – the gut-wrenching scene where James Nesbitt’s father realises his son has disappeared springs to mind – Fortitude is more subtle in its approach.
Writer Simon Donald (Low Winter Sun) is content to simply trawl across the desolate tundra following the seemingly everyday lives of the town’s inhabitants. It’s a masterclass in how to slowly build suspense, with Donald sporadically punctuating scenes of the mundane with sudden sparks of dread, such as a young boy collapsing from a fever or an uneasy standoff on the edge of a glacier, and the payoff finally comes when Luke Treadaway’s newcomer stumbles upon the mauled body of a murdered biologist – a haunting scene that immediately sends shockwaves through the community.
With such a large ensemble cast to work with, it can be difficult to balance everyone’s screen time and adequately develop their roles – especially when their characters are all playing their cards so close to their thermal undies – but the cast of Fortitude turns out to be one of its primary strengths.
Stanley Tucci might make a late entrance, but the arrival of his charmingly cocky forensic expert Eugene Morton injects the story with some refreshing quirky humour as he immediately butts heads with the town’s sheriff (a thrillingly enigmatic Richard Dormer). There are also great turns from Galdor as the fiercely determined Odegaard and Michael Gambon as a terminally ill resident who find himself at the centre of all the dark events destroying the town. And with the series progressing at such a melodic pace, there’s still plenty of time for the rest of the cast to make a bigger impression as the series progresses.
With its striking visuals, unique location, subtle pacing and intriguing mix of characters, Fortitude is an ambitious and pleasingly promising addition to an already overstuffed genre. And while viewers have recently been scorned by series that didn’t live up to expectations, there’s enough that’s refreshing and mesmerising about this first episode to suggest this was a worthwhile gamble for Sky. At the very least, it’s far more entertaining than anything going on in Broadchurch right now.
Click here to watch the trailer for Fortitude