New Sofie Grabol drama Fortitude: Darker than Scandi noir?

Simon Donald, creator of Fortitude, tells Sarah Hughes his influences were Polanski and David Lynch

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The Independent Culture

It takes place in a cold, bleak place seemingly populated entirely by people with more than one secret to hide, focuses on an isolated community torn apart by a violent death and stars Sofie Grabol. No, not a surprise new season of Danish hit The Killing but Sky Atlantic's big bet for 2015, the 12-part crime series, Fortitude, which begins at the end of this month.

On the surface this story of murder and its attendant aftershocks sounds like a British attempt at Scandinavian noir but pack those comparisons away for Fortitude is a very different kind of beast. This is as much horror story as crime drama. A vivid, unsettling piece of television, stuffed full of odd, off-kilter images, which feels closer to Twin Peaks, David Lynch's claustrophobic tale of small-town murder, than to more recent crime tales.

"It's as different from The Killing as Boardwalk Empire is from True Detective," says the show's creator Simon Donald with light-hearted exasperation. "I didn't ever refer to The Killing during the writing of Fortitude and Sofie's character has nothing in common with her character in The Killing. In fact, in terms of Scandi crime drama influences I think it's time we started demanding that Scandi crime drama accounts for its very clear debt to Taggart."

Bad news then for anyone hoping to tune in for endless shots of Grabol looking magnificently moody in a series of chunky knitted jumpers but good news for those of us looking for an addictive chiller to follow in these gloomy winter months.

And while Grabol shines as the charismatic governor of the remote Arctic Circle town of Fortitude – her carefully weighted smiles a providing a welcome counterpoint to her most famous role – this is a true ensemble piece with a starry cast that includes Michael Gambon as a wildlife photographer who may have seen something he shouldn't, Christopher Eccleston as the head of the Arctic Research Centre charged with assessing the environmental impact of the governor's hotel plans and Stanley Tucci as a detective sent from London to help the local police chief after a brutal death.

It's a place where no one can be trusted, a town on the edge of the world where those who chose to live here rub shoulders with those who have washed up looking for somewhere to hide. Such places carry their own sort of tension and Fortitude is pregnant with barely suppressed violence.

For Donald, whose last television project was 2006's brutal but brilliant police corruption drama, Low Winter Sun, the show's austerely beautiful setting is crucial. "I wanted somewhere vulnerable on the edge of civilisation," he says, adding that he first thought of the idea after reading about an abandoned city in Siberia and originally intended to make "an independent horror film" before coming up with this twisting tale of old lies and long buried secrets instead.

Filming took place on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean during the winter months. "I'd expected this would be a depressing, disorienting, gloomy world but it wasn't," says Donald. "People told us it was their favourite time of year. They had their town to themselves – the outside world left them alone. There was something secretive and subversive in the air. It was thrilling."

Something of that secretive atmosphere bleeds into the opening episode, which spends much of its time hinting at a profound sickness in the soul of this small community of mine workers, scientists and drifters, the creeping sense of unease building alongside the realisation that these people are truly alone. Can we really trust police chief Dan Anderssen (a scene-stealing Richard Dormer) with his mysterious ability to be present almost immediately after disaster occurs? Or his new deputy, a war veteran with a lonely wife and a wandering eye? What's the real story with Grabol's coolly competent governor who appears to have staked her career on a swish hotel complex, which may now be threatened by an unexpected discovery in the ice?

Yet what marks Fortitude out from an increasingly crowded field isn't its plot so much as its pacing and sense of place. The latter isn't such a surprise given that the best recent detective dramas have all had a strong understanding of setting from the cobbled streets of Happy Valley's Hebden Bridge to True Detective's eerie Louisiana swamps, but Fortitude makes the most of the bleak wonder of its location, its camera capturing light as it glints off forbidding ice caps or swooping menacingly down deserted roads.

"There are monsters and you won't see them coming," mysterious newcomer Elena remarks in the opening episode, referring both to the bears that stalk the town's periphery, ensuring that everyone must travel with a gun, and the people living within, and a large part of Fortitude's power comes from the understanding that, as in Twin Peaks, nothing is as straightforward as it initially appears.

"David Lynch's work has been in my DNA since I saw Eraserhead as a student," Donald admits. "There's a strain of unsettling psychosis that I feel very connected to." Chinatown, Roman Polanski's classic tale of corruption and long-buried secrets, is also an influence "simply in the way that the pursuit of one apparent crime can lead to the disclosure of something much darker and more unexpected – that's really what interests me in writing thrillers, breaking into the hidden chambers of the human heart."

And nowhere is that interest more obvious than with Dormer's police chief, a man who may be the town's unheralded hero or its worst nightmare. "The question that's jokingly asked in the first episode 'is he a good sheriff or a bad sheriff?' is one of the central ones of the show," Donald says.

'Fortitude' starts on 29 January at 9pm on Sky Atlantic