Jhe foreign-language platform Walter Presents bagged its first Icelandic drama with the dark and grayish Sisterhood (Channel 4). Although Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world – as of last October the country’s prison population stood at 150 people – it appears to still be more than capable of accommodating a dark drama about sinister crimes. Murders may be rare, but why would that stop his detectives from sinking their teeth into just one?
Cleverly, Sisterhood makes it a special feature. When human bones are discovered in a new quarry (“They were digging under the lava,” says the local sheriff, in a line you’re sure not to hear in ITV’s latest gruff cop series), the first guess of the Einar investigator is that they must be old. Her colleague Vera points out that one of the teeth has a filling, so they might have to move away from the history books. So few people go missing in Iceland that Vera can name every unsolved disappearance since 1982 off the top of her head.
Most of these cases are not considered suspicious. They are seen as tourists who had given up on life and wanted to disappear. (Maybe they got stuck with a transfer to Keflavik airport, with only a juice bar for food.) But there wouldn’t be much of a streak in there, and it won’t take surely not long before Vera and Einar, who already have the ingredients for a classic double act, connect the bones to a local girl from a difficult family who disappeared over 20 years ago. The police reject the idea that the two could be linked. The girl’s file is thin, and the case was closed quickly. The officers involved seem a bit too eager to stop them from reopening it.
This series wastes no time trying to fool its viewers. It’s not a whodunit as such, and in its early days it doesn’t seem particularly interested in what led up to the crime itself, which is hinted at in the flashbacks that end the first episode. I’m sure it will come. Instead, it’s more about the local community. Everyone knows everyone in Ólafsvík, a small fishing town on Iceland’s west coast, but not everyone knows who’s hiding a huge, potentially destructive secret.
It spends around 20 minutes putting its pieces together, as we get to know the pillars of the community. Karlotta is a kind 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 the chef of a fancy restaurant, where she is bullied by a rude boss who works her so hard that she spends what little free time 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 prepares the young people of the city for their confirmations.
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last few days catching up on The Capture, which is as frenetic as TV gets – I manage a hectic few minutes of an episode before needing a a tea break and a bedtime – but I find myself charmed by the steady, eerie rhythm of Sisterhood. It refuses to hit you over the head with high-octane drama, opting instead for a no-frills, no-fuss approach to setting up the avalanche of secrets you know is just about to arrive. .
There is a gray darkness hanging over everything, a flat drizzle that seems to defy the drama of the natural landscape. This is serious and practical stuff. As he places Karlotta, Anna Sigga, and Elísabet in the spotlight, and we see how these seemingly disparate women are connected, he begins to show his hand. It promises to be a thriller that turns the screw on a past that’s been hidden for far longer than most people’s conscience could bear. The trio form the title brotherhood, and it’s fragile: I’m no expert at covering up crimes, but even I know, “Is she stable?” is not a question that I would regularly ask any of my accomplices.
If Sisterhood fulfills its first promise, it could be an unforgettable look at what the strain of a long-term lie can do to a person’s mindset, and what happens when the inevitable cracks in the history begin to form and spread. These three women have choices to make. I will stay to find out what they are doing.