Watching the film Jar City

So, one of the many good things about the recent snowy weather in the UK is that my younger daughter's parent-teacher evening at school yesterday (Tuesday) was postponed. Therefore, I could, if I wished, go to the cinema to see the one and only showing of the film Jar City in Kingston (2030 h on Tues). I decided I would see the movie, so tramped down to the cinema in the icy, silent and dark streets. It turned out that about six other people had made the same effort.

The film, based on the book by Arnaldur Indridason, is excellent. It is soon out on DVD (in the UK at least) and it is very well worth watching. Although the police team are not exactly how I had imagined from the books, the actor playing Erlunder was convincing in the role, really inhabiting the morose detective's skin and with the requisite intense focus. From my memory, the film stuck pretty closely to the plot of the book, and it was telling (if poignant) to note that the late Bernard Scudder, Indridason's superb translator, was responsible for the English subtitles.

So, what of the film? It is a straight police procedural, in that Erlunder and his team investigate the death of a late-middle-aged man bashed on the head with an ashtray. The case reveals to them that the victim may have raped a woman many years ago, and this is somehow relevant to the birth of a girl, Aude, who died young of a disease. Erlendur, the lead detective, and his team (portrayed tellingly as real, believable individuals that one might see on the street or at work tomorrow) soon discover that the death is linked with the Icelandic genetic database. There are many wonderful, atmospheric scenes of the hamlets of this barren, rocky isle, where people seem to be clinging to a life in a harsh environment – a hardy people, content in their solitude. But scratch the surface and unpleasant adaptations begin to emerge.

The Icelandic database project is real. Every person on the island (who has given consent, which is most of this small and inter-related population) has his or her genetic data held there. The plot depends on one person having faked a research project, got through several ethical and scientific review boards, and having access to all these data. This could not happen. A person could not undertake such a course without a body of published research, an active group, and other types of accountability. Indridason, and the film-makers, want to explore the consequences of an individual having total access to this information, so they venture into unrealistic territory. On one level, I am glad that they have done so, because the core of the story involves the genetic "deviants" who carry the potential for disease, and how this affects human emotion and entire lives. This field is one that is very little understood, apart from those who live under the burden of such genetic darkness. (I have personal reasons to understand this subject, as well as a professional interest.) On another level, I feel disappointed that the plot has to depend on the scientific community being stupid - the system simply does not and cannot work in the way shown in the film.

In the film, more than in the book, this discrepancy does not matter. Erlunder pursues his goal – discovering the truth – and in the process we see many small, delightful quirks that could never be conveyed in a Hollywood or other commercial film. I loved the depictions of Icelandic life- whether eating a sheep's head (eyes and all), snacking in the mortuary, the knitwear, the little houses clinging to the windswept rocks and plains, the introspection, misery, boredom, drug addition (the story of Eva Lind and her father Erlunder is a moving aspect of the film, as in the books) and bleakness is all there, speaking to the audience. But above all, the enduring memory is the beautiful young child in her white communion dress in her coffin, the ruin of the lives of her parents, and the sheer tragedy of it all, reflected in the eyes of Erlunder as he sings in the choir that forms the elegy in the prologue and epilogue of this remarkable film, which drew me in and absorbed me totally.

Jar City: Observer review.

Jar City: Times review.

Arnaldur Indridason's books reviewed at Euro Crime.

Update: review of the film at Crime Scraps.

8 thoughts on “Watching the film Jar City

  1. I agree this was a really gripping film far better than some Hollywood thrillers. The actors playing Erlendur and Eva Lind were superb and that was for me set the film apart. Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli were not as I had imagined them Sigurdur being too young but this did not spoil it for me.
    But I still prefer Montalbano’s taste in food!

  2. They really changed the characteros of Elinborg and S Oli. But I didn’t mind (though I expected to!). Agreed I would prefer a Salvo meal than a sheep’s head, Norman.

  3. But the big Icelandic database didn’t totally materialize. I was gobsmacked when Arnaldur Indridason told me that, though when the book first came out it looked as if it was going to happen. There was a legal challenge, and Iceland’s supreme court ruled that the law that gave deCODE the right to Iceland’s genetic record was unconstitutional.
    According to the EPIC website –
    In a landmark decision, Iceland’s Supreme Court ruled (pdf) that the Health Database Act of 1998 does not comply with the country’s constitutional privacy protections. The Act authorized the creation and operation of a centralized database of non-personally identifiable health data, with the aim of increasing knowledge and improving health and health services. The Act was challenged in court by Gudmundsdottir, who wanted to prevent the transfer of her deceased father’s medical records into the database. The Court ruled that Ms. Gudmundsdottir could not opt out of the database on behalf of her father, but could prevent the transfer of the records because it is possible to infer information about her from the information related to her father’s hereditary characteristics. The Court further ruled that removing or encrypting personal identifiers such as name and address is not sufficient to prevent identification of individuals, who might be identified from a combination of factors such as age, municipality of residence, marital status, education and profession, combined with the specification of a particular medical condition. The Court held that the obligation to protect privacy, imposed on the legislature by the Icelandic constitution, could not be replaced by various forms of monitoring entrusted to public agencies and committees. (May 25, 2004)
    It seems that this astonishing initiative was derailed by a number of things, including competing sources of genetic informaion becoming available. The company still exists but it’s a shadow of its former self (and who knows how recent events have affected it).

  4. What an interesting film review.
    And I can see Indridason touches upon science fiction. Still, I think the warning that even the best systems can be abused could be relevant enough.
    And it is certainly a film I would like to see.

  5. Barbara – it has been an intensely controversial project which we have reported on over the years since it first was mooted – and have evoked very strong reactions. They have certainly not been doing so well recently since the promise of “pharmacogenetics” (making drugs based on predictions from genome sequences) has (unsuprisingly to many biologists) not been borne out.
    An excellent series of books, though, I agree.

  6. I enjoyed the film when it came out in Iceland, but I agree that the scientific database part is less than convincing, especially for those who know something about how the Decode system is designed. That was also the weak point of the book.
    There was some discussion about Ingvar E. Sigurðsson being too young to play Erlendur when the cast list was revealed. He was 43 at the time, while Erlendur is in his fifties or even sixties. Those doubts quickly disappeared when the movie premiered.
    The director has said that he will not make another Erlendur film, but there are rumours that a script exists for Silence of the Grave.

  7. Thanks for the update, Bibliophile – I remember reading your review when the film (in Icelandic) opened in Iceland. Pity that the director doesn’t intend to make more Erlunder films, but I can understand the creative need to work on different projects.

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