The Keeper of Lost Causes

August 2, 2014
Nikolaj Lie Kaas in The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)
Nikolaj Lie Kaas in The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)

An art critic of my acquaintance once boasted he had never read a detective novel. This claim was intended to make him seem an intellectual, but it only showed the narrowness of his mind. When writers such as André Gide and Francois Mauriac wrote admiringly of the detective stories of Georges Simenon, we can see that the line between literature and genre fiction is entirely permeable. Not many readers of any persuasion would admit they preferred a book such as Gide’s Fruits of the Earth over Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels.

Denmark’s Jussi Adler-Olsen, is the latest exponent of Nordic noir to become a worldwide hit, following in the footsteps of formidable writers such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo. The predictable film adaptation of Adler-Olsen’s 2007 novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes, will stimulate interest in his work.

I’m left wondering if Mikkel Nørgaard’s efforts would have seemed more engaging if I hadn’t read the damn book first. It might have retained an element of suspense that goes missing when one is already familiar with the plot. Neither would there have been a conflict between my mental image of the characters and the actors who portray them on screen.

Most probably this Danish mystery thriller would have remained mediocre. The many subtleties and humorous twists of the novel are flattened out by a screenplay that strips the story back to the bare bones and eliminates the minor characters and incidents that flesh out the personalities of the protagonists. Nikolaj Arcel, who wrote the screenplay for the first version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), and enjoyed success as a director, with A Royal Affair (2012), has produced a script that seems tradesmanlike, and perhaps a bit rushed.

Against all expectations the American film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo turned out to be superior to its Swedish predecessor, and The Keeper of Lost Causes leaves one feeling equally unconvinced about the talents of its director and scriptwriter. Nørgaard has spent much of his career working in television, and has treated this movie as if it were an episode in a series. The next film I saw after this one was Deliver Us From Evil, and the difference in pacing and overall conception – even allowing for the supernatural hijinks – showed up the lacklustre nature of the Scandinavian effort.

The flawed hero of this tale is Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a down-at-heel detective with a bitter tongue, a drinking problem and the usual messed-up private life. Carl suffers from a strange mixture of low self-esteem, and a belief that he is much smarter than everyone else in the department.

Coming back from leave after a botched police raid in which one of his colleagues was killed and another incapacitated for life, Carl is full of guilt and remorse – signified by long, glum stares and sulkiness. To get him out of the way his boss puts him in charge of the new Department Q. The job entails taking another look at cold cases and filing them away. In the book this is a role that requires results, but the film makes it into nothing but paper shuffling.

Carl is given an assistant named Assad (Fares Fares), a Syrian immigrant who plays Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. While Adler-Olsen exploits the many possibilities of this situation, turning Assad into a surprising character, the film version is more constrained.

The first cold case that Carl and Assad pick up concerns a rising Danish politician who disappeared five years ago. Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter) was young, blonde and much admired, but she went missing from the deck of a passenger boat, and was eventually declared to have committed suicide. Carl finds this explanation unconvincing, and re-investigates the evidence, which entails visiting Merete’s mute, retarded brother at a sanatorium, and digging into the details of her political career and family life.

It turns out that Merete has been kidnapped by a sinister type who has held her captive in a pressure chamber for the past five years while he exacts a protracted revenge for undisclosed wrongs. The long, tortuous process of investigation that Carl and Assad undertake in the book is accomplished in quick time in the film, and the story speeds towards a dramatic resolution. This is good enough for a mildly diverting trip to the movies, but I’m sorry to report that a complex journey into the depths of the human soul has been reduced to a short sprint to the box office.

The Keeper of Lost Causes
Directed by Mikkel Nørgaard
Written by Nikolaj Arcel, from a novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Starring Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Sonja Richter, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Peter Plaugborg
Denmark/Germany/Sweden, rated MA 15+, 97 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 2nd August, 2014.