ELVEN (THE RIVER)
A man finds a foot in a river. It makes him nervous, but not because he does not know where it came from. He’s nervous because he seems to already know where more body parts remain unburied.
A little girl finds a hand in the same river. Her name is Silja, she is 10 years old, she seems intelligent, but does not speak. “Different.” “Sensitive.” She lives with her mother and grandmother. Grace, Silja’s pretty single mom, is a barmaid who works hard to get away from her own critical mother. Grace is so lonely that when she reluctantly has to turn a trick for some extra
money, she tells the customer that she can stay longer. When told “that’s not necessary,” her sadness is palpable.
Welcome to Djupelv, a tiny village on the northern tip of Norway, 800 miles northeast of Oslo, the capital. Djupelv is also the name of the river (sometimes spelled Djupelva), cold, relentless, icy, that gives the show its title. The camera pans between dramatic interactions to scenes of the flowing river, as if to say corrupt human nature cannot match the elemental, pristine, power of nature.
It’s not police against criminals in the Norwegian series The River. It’s a policeman from Oslo, Thomas Lønnhøiden
(Espen Reboli Bjerke), now working in a town from which his parents disappeared in a plane crash, along with the plane, when he was an infant. He wants to find justice for Silja, but he’s also compelled to solve the mystery of his parents’ death. He’s up against a lazy, incurious police department, an ineffectual local media, and complicit Military Intelligence. Norway’s military calls the shots in this region, where the Cold War never ended, and where Russian and Norwegian agents still play Spy vs. Spy. In some ways, it’s an oddball companion piece to the brilliant three-season thriller Occupied (Netflix), in which Russia engineers a relatively subtle invasion of Norway to maintain a steady, cheap oil supply.
In the plot-packed first episode of The River, Russian troops have been spotted at the border. A preparedness drill, led by a determined, ambitious woman sergeant Mia Holt (Ingeborg Raustol), takes on extra urgency. When the girl Silja disappears and is found dead near a ramshackle building on Army property, no one but Lønnhøiden seems to want to find out the truth. “They talk in half-truths and riddles,” he complains, and for eight episodes, through suicides, sabotage, and snowmobile chases, the lies keep on coming. Plausibility is not a strong point, but the raw beauty and frequent bursts of unpredictable action may keep you watching.
Unlike some cold-weather settings that wait for better weather to shoot, The River revels in its frosty locale. There are chases through knee-deep snow in the woods, cars skidding into snowbanks, and overhead shots of long roads cleared by snowplows 24/7.
The scenery is reason enough to enjoy much of The River, shot in tones of Arctic gray that make it difficult to guess the time of day. Everyone is dressed in thick wool and heavy parkas, so that even though some sexual chemistry develops between Thomas and Mia, there are so many layers to take off that it’s hard for them to find the time.
Amazon Prime / PBS Masterpiece
HAMARINN (THE CLIFF)
A river is also featured in the Icelandic show Hamarrin, which takes place in a rural region hundreds of miles from the capital, Reykjavik. Helgi (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a special investigator from the city, is called in to help the local policewoman Inga (Dóra Jóhannsdóttir) investigate a suspicious death at a construction site. (Haraldsson and his character Helgi are also featured in The Lava Field, which has appeared on Netflix and Amazon Prime from time to time.)
Developers, with the eager participation of some local landowners, want to build a hydroelectric plant, which would require blowing up the the cliff and damning the rivers and falls that make the area a popular tourist area during the summer. Building the plant offers plenty of money and jobs, but to some the cliff is not just sacred but invested with supernatural powers. Shiny round blue lights, like small comets, or balls of lightning known as “the Moon of Urd” are sometimes spotted in the sky at night, falling near the cliff. The real moon hovers low in the sky, a natural wonder of its own.
Facing the cliffs, the few residents, and their many horses, see plain pasture. On the other side of the cliff (about 62 feet high, a brisk recreational hike to take a peek from the peak), the world looks different: a sumptuously beautiful ecosystem of hills, wild horses, streams, flowing water, and waterfalls, as gorgeous as anywhere on earth.
Environmentalists (and some residents) want to stop the project; some dynamite and blasting caps are found missing. The police “raid” the environmentalists’ encampment, looking for the dynamite, and if you want to see what citizen-friendly policing looks like, it’s a kind of comical scene. When Helgi and Inga rush to control the conflict, they come upon a lot of shouting, not shooting. The greens claim the police brought drug-sniffing dogs, which they describe as “rude.”
Obviously, there is plenty of tension beneath the façade of Icelandic cooperation. Everyone seems to have had a past with everyone else, marriages are frayed but alternatives are few. The men do have the option of visiting Halldora, who runs a massage parlor. Helgi and Inga are always knocking on her door, as she in quick turns is considered a witness, a suspect, and a victim.
Everyone suspects everyone else; even families are divided. “A bit of jealousy and envy is normal,” one of the residents says. A bit, sure. But long-buried emotions often swell, punctuated by the sometimes spare, sometimes symphonic electronic music soundtrack. In this remote place, some people (and children) are more attuned to the currents emanating from the cliff than others. Those who do not heed those powerful vibrations don’t see trouble until it’s too late.
Amazon Prime / PBS Masterpiece
Wayne Robins is a veteran journalist, music critic, and author. His books include A Brief History
of Rock . . . Off the Record, and Behind the Music: 1968. His articles and essays have appeared
in anthologies about Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Joni
Mitchell, and others. A 2021 inductee of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for his writing and
criticism at Newsday (1975–1995), he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in