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A Conspiracy of Faith

Original title: Flaskepost fra P

D: Hans Petter Moland / 112m

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Pål Sverre Hagen, Jakob Ulrik Lohmann, Amanda Collin, Johanne Louise Schmidt, Jakob Oftebro, Signe Anastassia Mannov, Søren Pilmark, Olivia Terpet Gammelgaard, Jasper Møller Friis

The third in the series of Department Q adaptations – from the novels of Jussi Adler-Olsen – sees the discovery of, literally, a message in a bottle being forwarded to said department in the hope that they can deduce if it’s some kind of prank or if the message is for real. With the head of Department Q, Carl Mørck (Kaas), still on sick leave following the events of the previous instalment, The Absent One (2014), his partner, Assad (Fares), and their assistant, Rose (Schmidt), begin to tease out the puzzle of the message, faded and corrupted as it is after being in the water for eight years. When Mørck does return to work he makes an important point: that there have been only two children reported missing in Sweden in the last ten years.

A name in the message – Poul – leads the team to looking at schools in the general area where the message was washed ashore. They discover that around seven years ago a boy named Poul and his brother Trygve were removed from a school by their parents, and were apparently sent to live with a relative. But when Mørck and Assad manage to track down Trygve he eventually tells them an entirely different story: that of being abducted by a man who ransomed the two boys, and who killed Poul. What also becomes clear is that the man who has done this was known to Trygve’s parents, and they said nothing at the time. Meanwhile, the man in question, known as Johannes (Hagen) and posing as a minister, meets with a couple, Elias (Lohmann) and Rakel (Collin), and their two children, Magdalena (Gammelgaard) and Samuel (Friis). Later, Johannes abducts the two children but is spotted doing so. Mørck and Assad are informed by a local police officer, Lisa (Mannov), and the three of them visit Elias and Rakel.

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At first, Elias is defiant, and doesn’t want their help, but when Johannes demands Elias bring him the ransom, Mørck insists the police mount a large-scale operation designed to catch Johannes when he collects the money. With Elias tasked with taking a train until being given further instructions, when those instructions involve throwing the money off the train at a certain point, the anxious father does something no one could have expected: he jumps from the train. But in doing so, his attempt at confronting Johannes himself goes awry, and the hunted soon becomes the hunter as he learns of Mørck’s involvement, and decides to target the detective – and anyone who gets in his way.

Three movies in and this adaptation of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novel is still uniquely Scandinavian, and is still as gripping as its predecessors. This is a series that trades on the bleakness at the heart of its central character’s soul, so it’s fitting that A Conspiracy of Faith should challenge Mørck’s insistence that having faith in any kind of deity is “stupid” – even Assad is derided by his partner’s intransigence on the matter. But as anyone who’s been following the series since it began with The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013) can attest, Mørck does have faith, it’s just that it’s been damaged by the terrible things that have happened to him over the years. He’s out of touch with people and his surroundings – at the beginning of the movie, Assad finds Mørck dressed and ready to return to work but sitting motionless in his apartment as if he’s waiting for something to give him purpose. The message does this, but the nature of the case, and the realisation that the parents of previously abducted children kept quiet about what had happened and made up lies about it, merely serves to reinforce his view that religion has no place in the real world.

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By the movie’s end, Mørck may have had a revelation of his own, and he may have discovered a way to accept a degree of faith for himself, but the viewer will have to make up their own mind about that. Returning screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel is too clever to make such a consequence of Mørck’s involvement in the case so literal, but the clues are there, and it will be interesting to see where this takes the character in the next, and final, movie. With Mørck being so adamant about religion and worship, it’s good to see Assad take him to task over his own faith, and the way in which Mørck is disrespectful of him. Again, three movies in and Assad is a far cry from the slightly under-developed character he was in the first movie. Here his intelligence and leaps of, well – faith, help propel the investigation, and for much of the movie he’s the one in charge, not Mørck. It’s good to see that Assad has become such an integral part of the series, and not just the average sidekick who might get the odd moment to shine if the script allows it.

Both Kaas and Fares know their roles so well by now that they pick up where they left off without missing a beat. Returning minor characters Rose and Marcus Jacobsen (Pilmark) provide further links with the previous movies and are welcome aspects of the series’ continuity, while the various newcomers all do extremely well, from Lohmann’s prideful father, to Oftebro’s pretty boy police officer, and all the way to Hagen’s impressive turn as the murderous Johannes. Hagen is perhaps the series’ best adversary for Mørck and Assad, his passive face and physical stillness providing a keen counterpoint to the urgency that they bring to their roles, as inevitably, they encounter a race against time.

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The story does skim over the motivations of characters such as Elias, and the central sequence involving the train and the ransom drop looks too much like it’s been visually inspired by the climax of Mission: Impossible (1996) – without the helicopter in a tunnel, naturally – but these are minor issues in a movie that has a solid emotional base beneath all the thriller elements, and a movie that further confirms the producers decision to make four movies altogether was the right one (though they could adapt the other three Department Q novels Adler-Olsen has written – if they wanted to). Stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, Moland has made a fine job of seamlessly integrating this movie into the series as a whole, and along with DoP John Andreas Andersen and editors Olivier Bugge Coutté and Nicolaj Monberg, has retained the series’ beautifully dour visual style and narrative rhythms. With one more movie to go, let’s hope the producers can maintain the quality of the series so far, and bow out on a continuing high.

Rating: 8/10 – there’s much to admire (and enjoy) here, from some truly mordaunt humour to the creepy behavioural tics that Hagen brings to his role, but overall this is another fine instalment from a series that really, really needs a wider audience; by maintaining its focus on its lead character, and the problems that plague him, A Conspiracy of Faith avoids comparisons with any other crime thrillers out there, and confirms its place in modern cinema as a second sequel that works equally as well as the original.