The foreign language platform Walter Presents has bagged its first Icelandic drama with the sombre, grey-washed Sisterhood (Channel 4). Despite Iceland having one of the lowest crime rates in the world – last October, the prison population of the entire country stood at 150 people – it seems that it is still more than capable of hosting a bleak drama about grim crimes. Murders may be scarce, but why should that stop its detectives getting their teeth stuck into one?
Cleverly, Sisterhood makes a feature of it. When human bones are discovered at a new quarry (“They were digging under the lava,” says the local sheriff, in a line you definitely wouldn’t hear in the latest ITV gruff detective series), investigator Einar’s first assumption is that they must be ancient. His colleague Vera points out that one of the teeth has a filling, so they might need to move away from the history books. So few people go missing in Iceland that Vera can name each unsolved disappearance, since 1982, off the top of her head.
Most of these cases are not considered suspicious. They are written off as tourists who had given up on life and wanted to disappear. (Perhaps they got stuck with a transfer at Keflavik airport, with only a juice bar for sustenance.) But there wouldn’t be much of a series in that, and surely it won’t be long before Vera and Einar, who already have the makings of a classic double act, connect the bones to a local girl from a tough family who vanished more than 20 years ago. The police are dismissive of the idea that the two may be connected. The girl’s file is slim, and the case was closed quickly. The officers involved seem a little too eager to keep them from reopening it.
This series doesn’t waste time trying to wrongfoot its viewers. It isn’t a whodunnit, as such, and in its early stages it doesn’t seem particularly interested in what led to the crime itself, which is hinted at in flashbacks that bookend the first episode. I am sure that will come. Instead, this is more concerned with the local community. Everyone knows everyone in Ólafsvík, a small fishing town on the west coast of Iceland, but not everyone knows who is hiding an enormous, potentially life-destroying secret.
It spends 20 minutes or so moving its pieces into position, as we get to know the pillars of the community. Karlotta is an amiable nurse whose personal demons lurk in the background. She does yoga, runs and listens to anti-anxiety podcasts to get through her days. Anna Sigga is a chef for a fancy restaurant, where she is browbeaten by a boorish boss who works her so hard that she spends what little time off she has in agony. (The boss is a spectacular monster, who will be familiar to almost anyone who has worked in pubs, restaurants or any other catering establishment.) And Elísabet is the local priest and a relatively new mother, who is preparing the young people of the town for their confirmations.
It might be down to the fact that I’ve spent the last few days catching up on The Capture, which is as frantic as TV gets – I manage a few hectic minutes of an episode before I need a tea break and a lie-down – but I find myself charmed by Sisterhood’s steady, ominous pace. It refuses to thwack you over the head with high-octane drama, instead opting for a no-frills, fuss-free approach to setting up the avalanche of secrets that you just know is about to come.
There is a grey gloom that hangs over everything, a flat drizzle that seems to defy the drama of the natural landscape. This is staid and practical stuff. By the time it places Karlotta, Anna Sigga and Elísabet in the spotlight, and we get to see how these seemingly disparate women are connected, it starts to show its hand. It promises to be a thriller that turns the screws on a past that has been kept hidden for far longer than most people’s consciences could bear. The trio form the sisterhood of the title, and it is a fragile one: I’m no expert in covering up crimes, but even I know that “Is she stable?” is not a question I’d want to regularly ask of one of my co-conspirators.
If Sisterhood fulfils its early promise, it could be an Unforgotten-esque look at what the pressure of a long-term lie can do to a person’s state of mind, and what happens when the inevitable cracks in the story begin to form and spread. These three women have some choices to make. I’ll stick around to find out what they do.