TV Review: Polar Bear Gives Answers in ‘Fortitude’

Caution: This review contains major spoilers on the eighth episode of “Fortitude.”

DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) peers in a window in

DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) peers in a window in “Fortitude.” Photo: Sky/Tiger Aspect Productions

If you haven’t watched the new Arctic thriller “Fortitude,” you are missing an amazing and riveting series. Unfortunately, it’s not a program that airs on cable television in the United States, but rather through the millennial-targeted distributor Pivot TV or through streaming afterwards on the Xfinity service. UK viewers can watch on Sky Atlantic. I’d mentioned “Fortitude” before its premiere in an earlier post and it’s a relief that the series delivers the quality that the previews appeared to promise. It traces a series of murder investigations by outsider DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) in the town of Fortitude, which hasn’t been hit by any murders before. As we might expect, the supposedly quaint but freezing locale is rife with secrets.

This week, the scientific research of Vincent (Luke Treadaway) and Natalie (Sienna Guillory) continues to grow as a convincing and alarming explanation behind the odd behavior of both Shirley (Jessice Gunning) and Liam (Darwin Brokenbro) in the attacks (and murder for the latter) on Dr. Allerdyce (Phoebe Nichols) and Professor Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston). Are environmental toxins causing these psychotic patterns? The late Professor Stoddart’s studies were already pointing that way, which is why he wanted to reverse his position on proposals for Governor Hildur Odegard’s (Sofie Gråbøl) glacial hotel. Turns out Vincent inherits a dead polar bear from the scientist, a present that he promptly dissects. Interestingly enough, this bear turned violent as well and killed another adult male bear.

After finding odd toxins in the bears brain, Vincent gets permission from Hildur and Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) to take a slice of Shirley’s brain. Precise medical dissection shouldn’t be disturbing, but “Fortitude” is very unapologetic about the grossness of it all. Not to mention, we’re on edge from the cold brutality of the murders before. Sure enough, abnormal readings are taken from Shirley, whose mother is barely alive in the hospital. Vincent seems to be on a roll and wants to carry this momentum into tests on Liam’s cerebral spinal fluid. Whether Frank (Nicholas Pinnock) and Jules Sutter (Jessica Raine), the already distressed parents, consent to such a procedure remains to be seen. But these new findings bring additional questions. Is there a disease taking hold and how does it spread? If Margaret Allerdyce survives, should we be concerned that she’ll “turn” next?

Meanwhile, the Sutters take their son home, but the whole family will have to go through psychological testing. Frank is still dealing with a lot of anger and guilt, frustrations that he takes out on a captive Markus Huseklepp (Darren Boyd), Liam’s teacher and Shirley’s boyfriend. Jules finds Frank and stops him from delving into more grisly forms of torture, reminding him that Liam needs him. We don’t need some sort of infectious disease to bring out the worst in us.

Innkeeper Elena (Verónica Echegui) is busy looking after Carrie (Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips), whose father is still missing. At the end, we see Ronnie (Johnny Morgan) is in a closet due to some brutal attack. There’s also more of Dan being hopelessly smitten with Elena.

Fortitude E8 Arm

DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) Photo: Sky/Tiger Aspect Productions

I admit that my favorite characters are Henry (Sir Michael Gambon) and DCI Morton. Henry sings “Abide with Me” as he shaves and packs his camera, a lovely sequence with a spin as he transfers vodka into a thermos: Henry is leaving Fortitude for one last adventure. He stops by the Sutter home to give the tupilaq doll to Liam and visits Dan to say farewell. It’s almost a lovely escape as Henry stands on a cliff later and lets his exuberant shouts echo through the expansive landscape.

Yet, there’s still a darkness creeping in, as Morton uncovers the negative with Pettigrew’s severed arm, handcuffed to a rail.

“All that snow, the icicles, the reindeer, don’t let that mislead you: this is not Christmas.”

“Fortitude” would be a very different show without Stanley Tucci as DCI Morton. He plays great confidence and calm as an investigator. He’s effectively won the support of the viewer in his stories, even when they delve into the macabre on occasion, or when he rubs people the wrong way. It’s a stark contrast to the more emotive style of Dormer as Sheriff Anderssen. Dan has dropped so many hints and a fake story about his role in Billy Pettigrew’s death. One would expect some sort of dark confrontation between Dan and Morton by the end of this first season, given how aggressively Dan can react to situations.

The Right Way to Direct a Thriller

There’s much to be said about Hettie MacDonald’s talents as a director, something I hope to revisit in more detail later. She directed this installment, as well as the previous two. It’s pretty clear that she’s drawing a lot of her style from the great Hitchcock in keeping the elements deceptively simple, but oh, so artfully done. Close-up shots of faces earlier, like on Liam and Shirley, for quite a few seconds to leave us with the strong impression that something is just not right. Then there’s the flickering lights at the supermarket and the projector at Ronnie’s townhouse, right before a dark moment. The minimal aspects of the soundtrack like clicking, whirring, or even whining violins work in tandem with the framing of the shots to put you on edge. The artistry is at work for seemingly innocuous objects, too, like rabbit “masks” (see the opening photo) and hanging meats. What a delight when we see her work again later this year with season 9 of “Doctor Who.”

On the other hand, the graphic detail of violent encounters does not ring so much of Hitchcock and could be toned down. However, keep in mind that “Fortitude” the word refers to strength in pain or adversity. The biggest question is whether the town of Fortitude will live up to its name and triumph over these disasters.

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