Black Sands review – a slow, meaty helping of Nordic noir

A body on the beach, a police protagonist with personal issues and an eye for knitwear … UKTV’s Icelandic import is dark, matter of fact and a little bit meta

After The Valhalla Murders, you wait ages for another Icelandic noir, then two come along at once. Hot on the heels of Walter Presents’ Sisterhood is Black Sands (Alibi), the channel’s first foreign-language drama and another series that portrays the famously low-on-crime nation as a hotspot for mysterious deaths and small-town secrets that threaten to consume everyone around them. By the end of the first episode, it had reeled me in, though it took its time getting there.

It is shot, with glorious gothic moodiness, around the famous black sands of Reynisfjara. The sun is low and the clouds are grey. Viewers who found House of the Dragon too dark may wish to hover one finger over the brightness settings, as this revels in its gloom. Like many a crime thriller before it, it begins with the discovery of a body on the beach, though this particular dead body is wearing sensible outdoor clothing. Has the young woman fallen from the mountainous terrain above, or is that nasty cut on her head the result of something, or someone, far more sinister?

Police officer Anita (The Valhalla Murders’ Aldís Amah Hamilton) will be our eyes and ears, but as with all good female police protagonists, she is dealing with a lot of personal issues that may or may not come to cloud her professional judgment. (She also has the required Nordic noir eye for practical knitwear.) We meet her as she is returning to the area where she grew up, for the first time in 14 years, having left her previous life in Reykjavik behind her, for reasons that become clear later on. As she hits a familiar road, she gets a phone call. There is a corpse on the beach, and chief cop Ragnar would like to know her opinion about what might have happened there.

At first, nobody seems to be particularly disturbed by the discovery. Ragnar is a grumbling curmudgeon with a grudge against tourists who have no respect for Iceland or its nature. We get the impression that he, like Anita, is dealing with a lot of personal issues. He is slapdash and hurried, and skirts procedure rather than following it. He thinks it is probably a case of a hiker with ambitions beyond her abilities. Later, at the police station, we see the vast Accidents Chart, with colour-coded pins stuck into an image of the mountains. Yellow is for an accident, purple for an accidental death, and red for a person missing and yet to be found. It’s worth noting that there is not, as yet, a colour for a murder victim. Whether they will need one remains vague, even in the closing moments of the episode, when the tension that has been teased throughout the hour finally breaks into action.

There is an earthiness to the story that makes even its more gruesome scenes seem matter of fact. When it comes to the woman’s body, it is brisk and blunt. “What do you think?” asks one officer. “She’s very stiff,” says another, crisply, without ceremony or emotion. The autopsy scene, in particular, is not for the squeamish, though it does provide an unlikely moment for the show to go meta. Over the corpse, local doctor Salómon (with whom Anita shares a spark), Ragnar and Anita discuss the merits of a crime drama they’re all watching. Ragnar says he found the reveal to be too obvious, while Salómon argues that the characters and their relationships are the most interesting thing about it.

It is mildly self-indulgent and clearly self-referential. When it comes to the death at the centre of the story, Black Sands moves at a glacial pace. But when it comes to the messy lives of those investigating it, it gets a spring in its step. Anita goes back to her mother’s house in a reunion scene that feels almost like a horror film. She is haunted by flashbacks to her youth, and the mother-daughter bond has ice running through it. Her old room is a mess, unready for her to live in it, and her mother is planning a surprise welcome-home party that seems more like a threat than a celebration.

This is a place where everyone knows everyone, and it conveys its small-town claustrophobia well. When we eventually begin to understand the tentative reasons why everyone is falling apart, Black Sands remembers itself, and throws another firework into the mix, giving its police officer protagonists a reason to do something more than mope around and argue on the phone. It is slow, but it’s meaty, and it offers just enough intrigue to make me want to return and find out what secrets the Black Sands are going to reveal next.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Hunt for a Killer review – Nordic noir nail-biter with a true crime twist
BBC Four’s latest import is a sensationalism-free reimagining of a 1989 Swedish murder case, which trades aspirational design and superhuman sleuths to look deep into societal woes

Ellen E Jones

04, Sep, 2021 @9:30 PM

Article image
Black Bird review – Ray Liotta is heartbreaking in this posthumous prison drama
This exquisitely pitched true-crime series about an inmate having to befriend a serial murderer at the behest of the FBI is a fitting farewell to the Goodfellas actor

Lucy Mangan

08, Jul, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Tulsa King review – Sylvester Stallone gets his first ever TV role! As a slow-moving 75-year-old gangster
The movie star’s televisual debut is full of fun, retro energy and action hero-lite antics, as he plays a veteran mobster trying to take over Oklahoma. Just don’t expect innovation

Lucy Mangan

15, Nov, 2022 @12:29 PM

Article image
Karen Pirie review – this female-led crime drama absolutely sings
Humour, confidence and charm are perfectly blended in this suspenseful adaptation of Val McDermid’s bestseller. As its young female detective tackles a cold case it really belts along

Lucy Mangan

25, Sep, 2022 @9:00 PM

Article image
Suspect review – James Nesbitt rages endlessly in unbearable Luther-lite
It proudly parades its lineup of A-listers, from Joely Richardson to Richard E Grant … but not even they (or Nesbitt’s wild scalpel-waving) can redeem this awfully cartoonish crime series

Rebecca Nicholson

19, Jun, 2022 @9:00 PM

Article image
Viewpoint review – Noel Clarke excels in Rear Window-inspired thriller
This slick ITV drama eschews the usual narrative cliches to deliver a rich and compelling mystery with a surveillance edge

Lucy Mangan

26, Apr, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
The Long Call review – a hefty whodunnit for autumn nights
From the makers of Vera, this new drama brings together a troubled detective and a murder mystery involving a former prisoner to compellingly twisty effect

Lucy Mangan

25, Oct, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
Unforgotten series four review – the coldest of cold cases
Nicola Walker’s Cassie and Sanjeev Bhaskar’s Sunny team up once again, but even these seasoned professionals have their work cut out when a headless, decades-old corpse is discovered

Stuart Jeffries

22, Feb, 2021 @10:00 PM

Article image
The Curse review – a sublime crime caper with an unfeasibly brilliant cast
The stars of People Just Do Nothing and King Gary team up for a finely-calibrated show about idiots planning a heist in a gorgeously rendered 1980s London

Jack Seale

06, Feb, 2022 @11:00 PM

Article image
The Tower review – Gemma Whelan bosses a doozy of a police thriller
Two people fall from a tower block – and the police may be in on it. This pacy, punchy drama feels incredibly timely … especially when trust in officers is at an all-time low

Lucy Mangan

08, Nov, 2021 @10:00 PM