“The Break”– Or, The Nervous Breakdown?

 

The Break NetflixThe Break (La Trêve) is the first French-language Belgian TV crime drama now available as a Netflix Original. The Break is now my newest addition to my ever-growing listicle of bleak, grim, moody, obsessive dramas from around the world, many Scandinavian “noir”. This is a must-see.

The main character, police detective Yoann Peeters (the extraordinary Yoann Blanc)has moved rather reluctantly from Brussels to his hometown village of Heiderfeld. After the death of his wife and an internal affairs investigation that left his professional reputation compromised, Peeters is searching for a new start with his teenage daughter Camille.La Treve2

Almost immediately the body of a nineteen-year-old soccer player, Driss, is pulled from the river by a fly-fisherman and ruled a suicide by the police commissioner. Peeters suspects murder. The deeper he   investigates, the more suspects appear with unsavory connections,   often racist pasts, and other secrets both desperate and depraved.    His partner, an inexperienced young Sebastian Drummer, is a Heiderfeld native, who believes there can be no murderers in his peaceful hamlet. Peeters, on the other hand, believes anyone is capable of murder.

Soon Peeters’s investigation is thwarted by practically everyone in town leading to shocking plot twists.   Horrifying secrets surface from the bowels of a bucolic, picturesque community centered on farming, horses, and cows. The lush rolling hills in the Belgian countryside disguise the nightmarish tectonic shifts roiling in our imagination.  The Break

The Break is an adrenaline rush for viewers who enjoy crime and suspense. Decoding the criminal methods and identifying the murderer are surprisingly challenging. The first seven episodes (out of ten) each begin with a unique dream, conflating the imagined with the real. A forensic psychologist treating Peeters adds to the surreal difficulties of grasping truth from lies, insinuating that the truth has to be excavated with patience and determination. At least eight different suspects could be the murderer as more clues and more damaged characters are revealed.

The cinematography is muscular and the lighting haunting, insinuating the unexpected and  hidden violence within a web of complicity and deception. Uncontrollable violence is hinted at–in Peeters himself. While it might seem as if Nordic noir has reached saturation point, this drama suggests there is more to discover. Season 2 of The Break is projected for the end of this year!

“Department Q Trilogy”–Danish Noir

 

Department QBased on Danish author, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s bestselling crime thrillers, the riveting Department Q series has become one of Denmark’s most popular cinematic exports. The entire series has been released on video on demand (through Netflix).  This series needs more visibility and exposure–it is a viewing must!

A heart-pounding series of ingenious twists and shocking surprises, the trilogy–The Keeper of Lost Causes ( 2013), The Absent One (2014) and A Conspiracy of Faith (2016)–involves three cold cases no one else expects to resolve. Detective Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his partner, the Arab Danish officer Assad (Fares Fares), shrewdly undertake cold cases with seemingly dead ends. No clues, no suspect.

That is the core appeal of these three two-hour police thrillers. Each of the three films tells a discrete story, and one doesn’t require viewing to understand the other two. Nonetheless, I highly recommend seeing them in the order of production (“The Keeper of Lost Causes” first) because the relationship between Mørck and Assad builds and becomes quite an unusual complementarity of personalities, not the usual buddy-cop story line.

Department Q- The Keeper of Lost Causes

The protagonist, Mørck, seems at first like a stereotypical lone-wolf detective. He is bitterly resigned to cold cases in the basement–Department Q. Soon Mørck and Assad are defying orders and spending their days out in the field, uncovering clues across national borders into Sweden and Norway.

The use of violence in the Department Q series may be uncomfortable for some viewers, since the victims are often young women or children. The violence is rarely depicted on screen you know it is there.

Fans of Danish noir will draw comparisons with “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “Bron”, “Headhunter”, and “The Killing” and will find the intricacy of the cases emblematic of this distinctly Danish pitch-black brooding crime genre.   The sharp critique of how vengeance manifests itself and how deep its roots are permeates all of these expertly plotted narratives. Department Q left me on the edge of my seat–had to binge view two of them!

 

“Hidden Figures”–A Gestalt for Our Time

 

Hidden FiguresThe story of three brilliant African American women pushing back against the pre-Civil Rights America of 1961 is a stunning, mostly hidden story which has particular relevance today.

“Hidden Figures” is an adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name and follows three black women– Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson– who worked in NASA’s Langley, Virginia computer department. They worked in a segregated basement but not on computers. These black engineers were referred to as “human computers”, calculating complex calculus equations by hand. Even the mathematical formulas were hidden in a sense, to be discovered by these three remarkable women. They were among the first NASA employees to understand the power and capabilities of a massive IBM mainframe brought to NASA to assist in America’s first space launch.

Known as “human computers”, we follow these three intellects as they painfully rise through the ranks of NASA facing hurdles at every step, even under the watchful and largely sympathetic boss, Al Harrison (well played by Kevin Costner). They face the dual barriers of sex and race, while attempting to balance work and family life as well.  Hidden Figures

This untold story of the unsung heroes–the brains behind the pioneering Space Race is the history of hidden figures who contributed to the pivotal moments in science and technology after Russia had successfully launched Yuri Gagarin on Sputnik.

The opening scene of “Hidden Figures” reveals the precarious situation and tightrope dance that these three friends have to maneuver. Dorothy Vaughn (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) is a mathematician who is also mechanically-inclined, and knows how to fix their car which breaks down on the way to NASA. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician who wants to stand up to the police officer who seems to be questioning why they are traveling on the highway at all. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) tries to signal to her friend to follow the playbook and let the officer take over, which he does, leading them to NASA. The tone is set for tiptoeing in a white man’s world.

At NASA we see Dorothy fight to be a supervisor, Mary struggle to attain the necessary educational certification to become an engineer, and Katherine receive the credit for her critical mathematical calibrations which enable NASA to launch and land safely. Even as Katherine continues to outperform her male colleagues, she still must drink coffee from a pot labeled “Colored” and have to walk 20 minutes each way to the building where the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is located.

Most of the screen time belongs to Katherine’s story and Taraji Henson chews up each scene with great humor and her signature feistiness. Her colleagues Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are equally dazzling and the ensemble acting is impeccable. Hidden Figures is notable for being a disavowal of easy, uncomplicated stereotypes projected onto black women.

“Hidden Figures” is a marvelously entertaining and important film. Like the story of the Bletchley Circle of women codebreakers on the Enigma project during World War II (see my October 26, 2015 review of the Bletchley Park museum, “Bletchley Park: An Enigmatic Exploration” and my January 15, 2015 review of “Imitation Game”–Breaking the Code Breaker”. “Hidden Figures” is also an education in what our history books have failed to tell us.

Note: Katherine Goble Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of 17 Americans, on November 24, 2015 by President Obama. She was 97 at the time and is still living and active in STEM, a nonprofit program to encourage girls to study science and technology.