Figuring All This Out Will Take Some "Fortitude" Review

In the proud tradition of atmospheric small town murder mysteries like Twin Peaks and Broadchurch comes Fortitude, a twelve-episode thriller from the UK’s Sky Atlantic. Like those aforementioned dramas, this show takes its name from its absolutely singular setting--a fictional town situated on the Arctic Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Barely a century old and with only about 800 inhabitants, Fortitude is a peaceful and uneventful place apart from the occasional incursion of polar bears. (Indeed, residents are forbidden from going out into the wilderness without a rifle for protection from the beasts.) The isolated island has never seen a violent crime--that is, until scientific researcher Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston) is brutally murdered in his home.

Many residents of Fortitude had possible motives for silencing Stoddart. Did Governor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl, famous for playing Detective Sarah Lund in the original Danish version of The Killing) do it out of the fear that Stoddart’s environmental report on the island would prevent her long-planned glacier hotel from becoming a reality? Did miner Jason Donnelly (Aaron McCusker) go too far trying to intimidate Stoddart into paying him big money for a rare woolly mammoth carcass Donnelly found? Did famous photographer turned cancer-stricken drunk Henry Tyson (Michael Gambon) just flat-out lose his mind? Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) sets out to solve the crime with the help of DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci), who arrived from London to assist with the investigation almost suspiciously fast. Naturally, the Fortitude native clashes with the brash outsider--especially when it appears that Morton suspects Anderssen of killing not just Stoddart but also Billy Pettigrew, who was supposedly eaten by a polar bear three months earlier.

As you can see, for a tiny town, Fortitude is jam-packed with characters and subplots--and I’ve only hinted at a very small fraction of both. Among the sprawling ensemble cast, the show possesses a trio of magnetic human leads in Dormer, Gråbøl and the inexplicably American Tucci, with Dormer in particular a real breakout star. His Sheriff Anderssen possesses a charming smile that does not quite extend to his cold blue eyes and an eerie, alien manner that one imagines comes from living in Fortitude for far too long. And yet, even in his most off-putting moments--or perhaps because of them--he comes off as the hero that Fortitude needs and deserves. However, the true star of the show is the gorgeous Arctic setting. Shot mostly in Iceland as well as the UK, Fortitude is full of wide, cloudless blue skies, towering crystalline glaciers and icy cold waves crashing onto long, desolate shores. Even as the town descends deeper into violent chaos, it still possess a stark, sinister beauty that makes it a desirable place to live--or at least, to visit. So many of the human characters in Fortitude are so very, very strange, with odd mannerisms and psychological baggage, that one imagines it must take a special kind of crazy to actually live there, so cut off from the rest of the world.

Fortitude gets off to a great, spooky start. However, about halfway through the season the show takes an abrupt turn off the dark, shadowy path it is on and ventures into the painfully harsh Arctic sunlight. It becomes, to be quite blunt, a blood-soaked, gore-drenched horror show. Scary stories like this are best when much of the horror is still left to the imagination; here, too much is shown, and in a disturbing, graphic fashion that made even this hardened audience member’s stomach turn. (Spoiler alert: one needs a great deal of fortitude to sit through scenes involving a character cutting through another character’s belly with a fork and pawing through their intestines.) At the same time, the storylines keep multiplying and growing increasingly insane, becoming an unwelcome distraction from what one had thought was a good old-fashioned murder mystery. There’s just an excessive amount of everything in Fortitude--except closure. By time the program reaches it’s shockingly open-ended conclusion, you’ll be left feeling more frustrated than satisfied.

Despite these complaints, or perhaps even because of them, I would return to Fortitude for a second season. There’s still so much potential in this setting, and in these characters, for the show to become a great human drama once it is able to rein itself in and sharpen its focus.

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES

The four discs in this Blu-ray set also include behind the scenes interviews with the cast and crew.

"Fortitude" is on sale April 21, 2015 and is not rated. Drama, Thriller. Directed by Hettie Macdonald, Nick Hurran, Richard Laxton, Sam Miller. Written by Simon Donald, Stephen Brady, Tom Butterworth, Katie Draper, Chris Hurford, Ben Richards. Starring Sofie Grabøl, Stanley Tucci.

Jun
20
2015
Lee Jutton • Staff Writer

Lee attended NYU for Film & TV Production, but she now works mostly in PR. Her primary obsessions in life are Doctor Who, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Arsenal F.C. When not writing about things she's watched, she's running or kickboxing in preparation for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. 

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