The White Wall ★★★½
SBS on Demand, from Thursday, January 21
Lars Ruud (Aksel Hennie) is the head of operations at the world’s largest nuclear-waste disposal facility and as this eight-part Finnish-Swedish co-production begins on his birthday, there’s little to celebrate. While his colleagues, led by his friend, Helen (Vera Vitali), organise some good-natured celebrations and encourage him to go down into the mine to participate in a bit of blasting for old-time’s sake, Lars is under pressure.
The scheduled opening of the enterprise is imminent and the company in charge, ECSO, is strapped for cash as it doesn’t get paid until the first cannisters of waste are deposited deep underground. While the company is busy promoting itself and Sweden as pioneering world leaders in the area of nuclear-waste disposal, there are demonstrators protesting outside the facility, questioning its safety, flying drones over the site and generally making waves that ECSO doesn’t welcome.
Beyond that, the first crisis arises for Lars when there’s an explosion that causes deaths and injuries. The second problem comes when, while investigating the cause of the eruption, Lars and Magnus (Mattias Nordkvist) discover that some of the mine appears to be magnetic. Further examination reveals a slab of white stone that is foreign to them: they have no idea what it is or why it’s there.
Set in Norrlund, a fictional town in northern Sweden, and largely shot in the Pyhäsalmi mine in Finland, the series is directed by Aleksi Salmenpera, who’s also one of the creators, and Anna Zackrisson. Their approach is to build steady, slow-burn tension as the early episodes deftly set up a drama that has political and commercial intrigue, as well as a sci-fi aspect.
There’s a discernible difference in tone and style to comparable American productions, which tend to be a lot louder: more spectacular explosions, more heated confrontations. White Wall, however, goes about its business quietly.
Hennie, who also plays the lead in the compelling Norwegian political thriller Nobel (Netflix), is a charismatic actor who is once again playing a watchful man masking inner turmoil, a thinker repressing his emotions in order to get his job done and fulfil his obligations to his family.
White Wall tackles a politically and environmentally sensitive subject, and throws commercial concerns into the mix. It probes the classic sci-fi idea of humans playing with things they don’t fully understand and that can have unexpected consequences, in the present and for the future. And it’s cleverly built around cliff-hangers that entice you to keep watching.
Binge, from Tuesday, January 19
Set in the world of international banking, Devils has a slick, glossy look that matches its milieu. At its centre is Massimo (Alessandro Borghi), an ambitious and confident trader eyeing a promotion at his investment bank, although his Italian working-class origins appear to working against him.
Heading the institution is Dominic, played by Patrick Dempsey in silver-lion mode and with a palpable desire to put his days as McDreamy behind him. He has a piercing stare and is prone to inscrutable statements like “They call us devils, but we are the last line of defence against chaos”.
When one of the bank’s heavyweights falls from a balcony to his death, the scene is set for a murder mystery. Filling out the story is Massimo’s troubled ex-wife (Sallie Harmsen) and Sofia (Laia Costa), a blogger who has her own agenda in play.
There’s a perpetual sense of urgency, but there’s also a disappointing hollowness to the proceedings, which isn’t just because the series focuses on people chasing money and power. Devils has the slightly tinny feel of a drama that’s trying to tick boxes: troubled protagonist, high stakes, a suspicious death, conspiracies everywhere. But its emotional depth penetrates no further than the shiny surfaces.
The Mess You Leave Behind
Still grieving her mother’s death, literature teacher Raquel (Inma Cuesta) starts work in a new town and a new school and finds herself facing a restive class in this Spanish thriller. She becomes haunted by the fate of her predecessor, Viruca (Barbara Lennie), whose recent death has been ruled a suicide. As past and present intertwine and the women’s lives start to overlap, Raquel begins to doubt her own sanity and fears for her safety. The plotting is messy, its twists at times unconvincing, and Raquel’s protracted agitation stretches patience. It takes dedication to hang in for eight episodes to discover the truth about Viruca’s fate.
Truth Will Out
Psychologically fragile police detective Peter Wendel (Robert Gustafsson) returns to work after extended sick leave and is assigned to run a cold-case unit that it is hoped will keep him out of trouble. As his behaviour swings from impassive to aggressive, he becomes obsessed with solving a serial-killer case that was closed years earlier and assembles an off-beat team of department discards around him, including the continually surprising clerk Barbro (Maria Langhammer). The suspenseful Swedish crime drama leaves you wanting to see more of this unlikely team, which is good as a second season has been commissioned.
Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide
Acorn, from Monday
Forget Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple: meet Dr Catherine Kendall (Pauline Collins) and Colonel Geoffrey Reece (Oliver Ford Davies). They look like an ordinary pair of grandparents, but they’re actually Scotland Yard detectives. Here, the whodunnit that they’re assigned to solve involves the wife of an abrasive football club manager who’s poisoned during a party at a posh club. The plot thickens, secrets spill out, suspects abound. Made in 2003, this telemovie holds up pretty well.
In this bright, cleverly observed English comedy, Esther Smith and Rafe Spall star as a couple struggling with fertility problems. He teaches English as a second language, she works in a car-hire call centre and they rent their flat. They fret that they don’t look sufficiently attractive as adoption candidates. Created by Andy Wolton, the series follows their trials and Imelda Staunton is a delight in a supporting role as their social worker.