'The Investigation': TV Review

The Investigation
Courtesy of HBO

'The Investigation' premiered on HBO’s linear network Feb. 1 and will stream on HBO Max.

A dirge for the dead.
2/1/2021

The Kim Wall murder case is revisited in an HBO miniseries written and directed by Tobias Lindholm.

The 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall seized the world’s attention, likely for two reasons. The first is the mix of gruesome and unexpected details of her killing at the hands of Peter Madsen, a Danish inventor who invited Wall into his homemade submarine under the pretense of an interview before dismembering her body and disposing of it in the bay between Denmark and Sweden. The second is that Wall was a promising young woman — a worldly and accomplished 30-year-old who was planning an imminent move to China — whose light was extinguished by a violent misogynist when she was only trying to do her job. She saw herself as a teller of truths. He only saw her as a target.

HBO’s The Investigation is meant as a tribute, of sorts, to Wall. But the six-part miniseries, a Danish acquisition written and directed by Tobias Lindholm (the Oscar-nominated A War), is much more a salute to Jens Moller (Soren Malling), the homicide chief who led a painstaking effort to recover Wall’s scattered remains from the water and figure out enough of what happened during her final night to convict Madsen. With forensics of limited utility, it takes Jens and his team of detectives (Laura Christensen and Dulfi Al-Jabouri), divers (Nikolaj Storm) and pathologists four months to find enough evidence to put Madsen away — and The Investigation makes the viewer feel every one of its days.

Some of the coverage of Wall’s murder garnered criticism for its glib comparisons to Nordic noir. The Investigation is clearly the result of Lindholm’s deliberation of what kind of police procedural he wanted to make — and what real-life victims deserve when dramatizations are made of their deaths (a consideration still sorely lacking in many true-crime shows). The series is especially moving in the scenes with Wall’s parents, Ingrid (Pernilla August) and Joachim (Rolf Lassgård), though it would’ve been helpful to know in the many trust-building scenes between them whether the Danish Jens was speaking with the Swedish couple in his tongue or theirs. Lindholm’s camera never shows us anything approaching a cadaver, and Madsen’s name is never uttered.

But those ethical choices don’t make The Investigation particularly involving. Plodding and mournful, the dirge-like series takes as its primary subject not even Jens, but the laboriousness of the inquiry into Wall’s killing. Despite a strained relationship with his adult daughter (Josephine Park), the bespectacled Jens is the opposite of a typical TV detective: He’s level-headed, rigorously methodical, gentle and considerate to all. The only thing resembling levity in this spare, blue-gray production is the tight-lipped Jens getting off the phone with every journalist who calls him up by reassuring them that they’ll be the first to know whatever he learns.

With the tabloid press champing at the bit to publicize the more sensational features of “the submarine case” — and there’s no shortage of those — Lindholm is eager to contrast their vulturish glee with Wall’s more sober-minded work, as well as his own series. But it’s neither engaging nor edifying to spend an hour, say, revisiting the role that sniffer dogs played in the search for Wall’s body parts. When the case finally wraps, Jens and a prosecutor (Pilou Asbæk) ponder why, in a country with approximately 50 murders a year(!), the citizenry seems so intent on learning about the details of each one. But the discussion doesn’t really go anywhere, while underscoring Lindholm’s seeming disinterest in exploring the gender dynamics of the case. From an American perspective, at least, the sexual sadism that apparently motivated Madsen continues to haunt because it took place in the most gender-equitable region in the world. If this could happen in Scandinavia, what couldn’t happen anywhere else?

The male focus (and authorship) of The Investigation also forces the question of why this particular iteration of Wall’s story has been made — one that esteems the journalist’s work and goals but ultimately so centers on an admirable detective that, with a few superficial rewrites, the series could’ve been made about almost any victim of an outré crime. In an interview with The New York Times, Lindholm suggests that his show is about the restoration of justice by functional legal institutions, and there’s undoubtedly comfort in that for Nordic audiences. But even with an extensive epilogue dedicated to Wall and her parents’ endeavors to remember their late daughter by funding the work of female journalists, the show can’t help feeling like it’s also sidelining the real-life woman without whose death it would have never existed.

Cast: Soren Malling, Pilou Asbaek, Pernilla August, Rolf Lassgard, Laura Christensen, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Hans Henrik Clemensen
Creator: Tobias Lindholm

Airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on HBO, beginning Feb. 1.