The Lava Field TV series from Iceland, available on Netflix, is the latest in the increasingly popular Nordic Noir genre. It’s a somber thriller, often set in a bleak, but beautiful landscape, with murder, drug smuggling, biker gangs, and one very unhappy detective. Though there are a few cliches along the way, it’s a tense, gripping mini-series – four episodes long – that deserves a spot on your Netflix list.
The murder of a wealthy businessman occurs in The Lava Field’s opening scene. It’s poorly disguised to look like a suicide. Helgi Runarsson (Bjorn Hylnur Haraldsson) is sent to investigate with the cooperation of a more local police department – titles and agencies are never really made clear – and a brand new detective, Greta (Heida Reed), who is eager to prove herself.
The case sends Helgi to a part of Iceland where he spent time as a child. He is haunted by events from that era, as well as more recent personal tragedy. This all becomes intertwined, directly and indirectly, with the murder investigation, affecting Helgi’s ability to be objective.
Helgi’s loner personality, unwanted partner and personal problems are all too familiar in police procedurals, but The Lava Field, for the most part, manages to overcome them. The setting helps – it’s dramatic and unfamiliar to most of us – along with the ambient soundtrack, but the story and the characters are strong, too. There is some complexity to the interconnections between everyone. We have to pay close attention (and it’s possible the subtitles miss some subtleties in translation).
If things slip too easily into standard thriller formula during the last 20 minutes or so, take comfort that not everything is as neat and tidy as a typical network cop show or Hollywood movie. For comparison, the series is somewhat similar in mood and style to Hinterland.
The Lava Field was originally aired in 2014 in Iceland on RUV (Icelandic National Broadcasting Service) and later, in 2016, on the French-German network, Arte, using the title Murder at the Foot of the Volcano (Loki-Fögrufjöll). It was written by Sveinbjorn Baldvinsson and is an unrelated follow up to The Cliff, a 2009 series.* The Lava Field TV series has four one-hour episodes, which are currently available on Netflix.
*To make things more confusing, Hamarrin is the title shown on screen for The Lava Field, but Hamarrin translates as cliff (the earlier series). Pegasus Pictures, the production company for the series, list the title as Hraunið, which does translate as lava or lava field.