Norse Code: Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters Reviewed

Yasmeen Khan weighs up the latest Scandinavian crime adaptation, opening in UK cinemas this Friday

The Nordic crime fiction phenomenon has gathered a lot of momentum over the last 15 years or so, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. A steadily increasing proportion of books on the ‘crime’ shelves are from Scandinavia and Iceland. Meanwhile, they’re churning out film and TV adaptations, and the really popular ones – Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, all-conquering Danish TV series The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – get the inevitable US remakes too. The current fad can probably be traced back to the first English translation of Mankell (although the Swedish Martin Beck series began in 1965). But it was Larsson’s wildly popular Millennium trilogy, starting with 2005’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, that took the whole thing to the next level.

Following Larsson’s death, Norwegian Jo Nesbø is the Next Big Thing. He’s ‘the new Stieg Larsson!’ ‘If you like Kurt Wallander, you’ll love Harry Hole!’ This is clearly based on image and marketability. While Nesbø’s books are perfectly fine, enjoyable thrillers, they don’t share the literary merit of, say, Karin Fossum, Karin Alvtegen, Leif Davidsen or Arnaldur Indriðason (all of whom have also inspired movie adaptations). But Nesbø’s been chosen for us, and Morten Tyldum’s slick, stylish, high octane big screen version of the stand-alone Headhunters (Hodejegerne) is just going to cement the author’s place as the new king of Nordic thrillers.

From the opening shot, this picture assures us we’re in safe hands. It oozes a classy, old-fashioned promise of a tale well told. To wit: messages passed via newspapers in cafés, tips on stealing fine art with panache, beautiful houses, classical music, galleries, disguises. Headhunters is the story of Roger Black (Aksel Hennie), a top Oslo recruitment agent who moonlights as an international art thief. He’s a short man, and not a good-looking one. Most of his life is spent compensating for this in one way or another. Hennie resembles Steve Buscemi, and he plays Black with a Buscemi-esque anti-hero feel: world-weary, grimly humorous. It’s great casting, as is that of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (best known as Jaime Lannister from Game Of Thrones), obviously having a lot of fun speaking Norwegian with a crazy Dutch accent as Black’s nemesis, the tall and handsome ex-soldier Clas Greve.

Headhunters rattles along at a fine pace, its classy feel spoiled only by the overly dramatic and cheesy score. Personal dramas, jealousy and desires bubble under corporate intrigue, art-stealing hijinks and tense, high-tech cat-and-mouse games. Luckily, the film takes a little time to delve into the reasons behind the greed and the envy, to give the (male, at least) characters a bit of depth. The story of Black’s headhunting work is told in terms of image: jobs are won or lost by the clothes you wear to the interview. Women are only concerned with money and looks, at least in the men’s eyes. Roger and his seedy sidekick Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander) are from different social classes, but they’re both ugly enough to have to buy women’s affections. The humour really takes off when we meet Ove’s object of desire Natasha (Valentina Alexeeva), a Russian hooker and obvious analogue of Roger’s beautiful wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), whom Roger believes is kept loyal by diamonds and home furnishings.

The decision to make Headhunters a black comedy is its cleverest trick. The stylish Stieg Larsson adaptations are certainly dark, but they’re also bleak and humourless – like the snow covering the gorgeous city streets. The Silence (Das letzte Schweigen) (2010) transplanted Jan Costin Wagner’s story from Finland to Germany, but retained its cold Scandinavian clarity. A beautiful and haunting work, its seriousness is entirely appropriate, but adds to the feeling that humour is something alien to these icy landscapes. However, the script of Headhunters takes what is, in Don Bartlett’s book translation at least, a blandly matter-of-fact delivery of the narrative, and turns it into deadpan. Events are played for laughs, but those laughs are shocked and appalled. This extra dimension brings the film to life and makes it more worthwhile and enjoyable than a straight adaptation would have been. The sense that there’s something else going on here is invaluable.

Like Nesbø’s novel, this skates smoothly over the surface of the story it’s telling, presenting an amoral corporate world that’s just a shell, barely concealing the savagery underneath. There’s also some clever-if-obvious symbolism at play. For example, Diana stands for the mythical Diana the huntress, who sent the boar to ravage Calydon and, when it was itself hunted, provided the subject for Greve’s stolen Rubens. The creation of image in the context of corporate masculinity, and what your image as a hunter and go-getter can buy you as a man, is a central theme of both book and film. In this way, although it concerns itself mainly with the superficial and chooses the glib and hilarious over the horrifying and realistic most of the time, the movie also shows how easily the shell is shattered. And it does attempt to explore the emotional undercurrents that make the characters’ worlds so fragile, even though in the end it’s as lacquered with the gloss of stylishness as the protagonists are.

The past few years have been good for Norwegian film. Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st was a fantastic and moving piece of work, and the recent Noomi Rapace vehicle Babycall proved a decent downbeat drama, heartbreaking in its own way. Headhunters, though, joins André Øvredal’s cult hit Troll Hunter in the pure entertainment category, and is none the worse for it.

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