Throughout 2021, I have accepted some important truths: I sometimes feel loneliness like an anvil on my chest; exercising really does, annoyingly, make me feel better; I am lost without a murder drama series on the go. This has been the year of the re-watch – Happy Valley, The Bridge, Unforgotten and The Killing. These shows are richly different and should not be reduced to basic tropes, but they do all share a strong-but-flawed female detective in whom you can invest emotionally. And do I.
In a year stained by uncertainty, loss, health issues and boredom, spending my evenings absorbing the lives of fictional female police officers has been medicinal. That murder is a balm is perhaps something for a therapy session, but the determination and bruised souls of Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood, Nicola Walker’s Cassie Stuart , Sofia Helin’s Saga Norén and Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund have held my attention like nothing else – even the second or third time around.
I watched The Killing for the third time as summer petered out and felt particularly captivated by Lund: the forensic gaze, the abruptness, the walking out of rooms when she’s had enough of someone, the lovely face that wears remorse for which she can rarely find words. Lund isn’t real, but my experience of her is; watching a woman use her brilliant brain when mine felt like mushroom soup was just right. I envied her drive, though her inability to sustain relationships broke my heart. She moved me, when not much else did.
I explain all this to Gråbøl over Zoom. When she pops up, I have the feeling of seeing an old friend. “What you’re saying is very touching,” she says. “I felt so at home in this character, which is a paradox because she wasn’t a pleasant person to inhabit. She has a strong connection to what feels right, yet there was something very lonely about her.” While filming The Killing, Gråbøl was “in another world”. When they stopped, “it was like when you’re a kid and creating a world while playing, then your parent opens the door and says: ‘It’s dinner time!’ A bubble burst.”
We discuss the power of art in giving us other worlds to inhabit – something many of us have needed this year. “At the root of the human experience is a need to be mirrored, to have different languages for what we go through,” she says. I tell Gråbøl that my friend and I, watching The Killing simultaneously, kept sending each other a screenshot of Lund with slightly wild hair as an investigation becomes all-consuming. Her vague unkemptness spoke to us in our less-vague detachment from personal grooming as the ennui of the pandemic rumbled on. Gråbøl laughs into her cup of tea: “I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult!”
It has been “a massive year-and-a-half” for Gråbøl. She bought a house for the first time. “I’ve always been frightened of tying myself financially like that because my work life is so uncertain,” she says. “An anxiety of uncertainty is rooted in me and has been since I was a child, before I had the language for it. But I had longed for a little garden, so I just went for it.” As well as working on the film Rose with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s director, Niels Arden Oplev, in which she plays a woman with schizophrenia, Gråbøl filmed The Shift, a new series directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education), playing the midwife Ella, in a maternity ward at a Danish hospital. In July, Gråbøl had a two-week break. During this time, her mother, who had been having cancer treatment, became very ill.
“It has always been my big fear that someone close to me would fall ill because, in my line of work, you can’t just say: ‘I’m leaving now,’” she explains. Those two weeks were her mother’s last. “It allowed me to be there every day, and, at the end, sleep with her in the hospice. I washed her and prepared her for the funeral, following her the whole way, really. It was beautiful. I feel privileged that my mother’s death was like a masterclass in how to die.” I am struck by her elegance in describing such a significant loss.
While researching her role in The Shift, Gråbøl helped to deliver a baby in a real maternity ward. “I have given birth to two children, but: wow,” she smiles, wide-eyed. “Witnessing a birth is something else. I had never seen a birth or a death, but experienced both within the same month. Birth and death are bubbles of their own; the outside world becomes almost fictional. There is nothing else.”
Understandably, Gråbøl feels like the “tectonic plates” of her being have shifted. “We are cleaning out my mother’s apartment and my son is going to move in. So many huge changes have happened and the pandemic being the background to it all has felt quite appropriate,” she says. “The landscape has shifted, but now I will start learning how to move around in it. I have the sense that the collective shock we’ve gone through with the pandemic means we all have to do this, to an extent.”
As the light fades in our respective homes and we say goodbye, I think: “You’re right.”