The Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret): Locarno Review

Another classy and tense Scandinavian crime movie.

Actors Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares headline a high-end adaptation of Jussi Adler Olsen's Scandinavian crime novel, scripted by "Dragon Tattoo" screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel.

A difficult but unswerving Danish cop reopens the case of a female politician who allegedly committed suicide in The Keeper of Lost Causes, another effective, great-looking and well-acted Scandinavian crime film based on a bestselling novel.

Gruff and steely star Nikolaj Lie Kaas (The Killing, Angels & Demons) is perfectly cast as Inspector Carl Morck, the hero of Jussi Adler-Olson’s Department Q novels. Shot in the line of duty, he is assigned to Dept. Q when he returns to work, where he’s asked to classify 20 years of cold cases with just one assistant, Assad (Lebanese-born Swedish actor Fares Fares, from Safe House and Zero Dark Thirty). Of course Morck can’t help himself and reopens a case as soon as he can. 

The adaptation, directed by Mikkel Norgaard (Klown, TV series Borgen) and scripted by top local screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel (the original-language Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, A Royal Affair, which he also directed), will be released locally Oct. 8 and has already sold to numerous other European territories. It had its world premiere in Locarno and should appeal to outlets looking for quality genre titles with franchise potential.

The believably mismatched Assad (of Syrian origin in the novel, which goes unmentioned here) and Morck find themselves in the basement of their police station, which gives them the advantage of not being in the sightline of Jacobson (veteran actor Soren Pilmark), Morck’s boss who’s made it clear Morck's appointment to the new department is intended to keep the hothead away from his colleagues, who blame him for the shooting -- seen in the prolog -- which not only sidelined Mork but killed one officer and paralyzed another.

The case that piques the interest of the duo (which is less reliant on Assad's prodding than in the book) is a cold case from five years earlier, when a successful politician, Merete (Sonja Richter) supposedly jumped off a ferry to kill herself, leaving her mentally disabled younger brother, Uffe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, the King from A Royal Affair) behind.

Following the structure of the novel, Arcel constructs two parallel narratives. In the first, Morck and Assad hunt for clues. As soon as they've unofficially reopened Merete’s case, the second storyline -- which doesn't run parallel time-wise for most of the film but which editors Morten Egholm and Martin Shade integrate with clarity -- follows Merete’s true ordeal. Through clever plotting and mise-en-scene, the right information is moved into place while crucial faces or connections are kept from the audience until the final act, which takes place in the villain's country lair.

The question thus becomes not whether Merete intended to kill herself but if the cops will arrive in time to save her as she grows weaker and weaker from years of imprisonment in a pressure tank. Crucially, the audience will root for her survival because they’ll know who she is and have witnessed everything she’s had to go through, including a squirm-inducing sequence in which Merete has to pull out her own teeth.

Kaas effortlessly carries the film as a determined and solitary figure fully dedicated to his work because as a divorced man he doesn't have much else going for him -- while his difficult teenage stepson (Anton Honik) has wild sex, Morck struggles to even ask a woman out for a drink. Fares and Richter offer solid support and Folsgaard, one of Denmark's most promising young talents, delivers another note-worthy performance as the handicapped brother who can't use words to express himself but who's clearly been traumatized by the events in his life.

Widescreen cinematography by Eric Kress (another Borgen alumnus) and production design by Rasmus Thjellesen (Klown, Pusher II and III) are both big-budget smooth and particularly impressive in the way they use shadows and light and especially color, which occasionally goes from quasi-naturalistic to something more saturated and expressive, such as the interior of the pressure tank, which is a dank, hellish green punctured by black shadows in the recesses. The score by Patrick Andren, Uno Helmersson and Johan Soderqvist helps augment the tension, especially in the otherwise slightly formulaic home stretch.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)

Production companies: Zentropa Entertainments20, Zentropa Entertainments Berlin,
Zentropa International Sweden, Film i vast

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Sonja Richter, Mikkel Bo Folsgaard, Soren Pilmark, Troels Lyby

Director: Mikkel Norgaard

Screenwriter: Nikolaj Arcel

Producers: Louise Vesth, Peter Aalbaek Jensen

Executive producer: Marie Gade

Co-producers: Jonas Bagger, Maria Kopf, Madeleine Ekman

Director of photography: Eric Kress

Production designer: Rasmus Thjellesen

Music: Patrick Andren, Uno Helmersson, Johan Soderqvist

Costume designer: Stine Thaning

Editors: Morten Egholm, Martin Shade

Sales: TrustNordisk

No rating, 97 minutes.