How do you turn the complicated details of financial crime into thrilling television? The scriptwriter who made Danish politics look sexy in »Borgen« has repeated the trick with »Follow the Money«, a 10-part series airing on BBC4 this spring.
It starts with a dead Ukrainian, fished out of the cold waters in the Port of Copenhagen. A good crime drama usually starts with a dead body.
Add in a rogue cop with an inclination to bend the rules and a few troubles on the home front, and you might think you were watching another season of »The Killing« or »The Bridge«.
Even the atmospheric cinematography points in that direction. But this is no ordinary crime series. It is not even a whodunnit or much less a howdunnit. For in the murky waters of financial crime, the far more important questions are: how many did it and do they get away with it?
One can forgive the makers of the latest Danish TV thriller »Follow the Money« for inserting a few dead bodies into the plot to spice up the drama. Supposedly victim-less financial crime is not normally what you would expect to find on prime-time television, but this 10-part series has plenty to keep you home on a Saturday night.
»Follow the Money« was created by Jeppe Gjervig Gram, the lead writer behind the Danish political drama series »Borgen«. Here, he has dug deep into well-known Danish cases of financial crime to find real-life inspiration, while at the same time demonstrating his ability to make compelling human drama out of a difficult subject. What he comes up with is a well-constructed plot that weaves itself through a large tapestry of well-drawn characters whose lives interact at some point or other in the story.
This is not so much about dodgy numbers as an attempt to put its subject matter into a wider context of deceit and moral dilemmas that pervade all levels of society, from the little white lies that we might all tell, to the massive fraud and manipulation of power that might appear at the very top. And it is about the chain of events that can stem from just one »wrong« decision.
The striking title sequence shows the main characters of the plot each being literally immersed in water that overflows to fill offices and homes; a murky cascade set off by a single drop into a cup that is already near-full to start with. In »Follow the Money«, the moral choices are everywhere. The original Danish title refers overtly to this: »Bedrag« literally means »deceit« and does not necessarily imply any illegal conduct. The series is as much about self-deception, and an elastic sense of reality, as any deliberate and criminal wrong-doing towards others.
Per Fly, the conceptualising director on the series, has said that it was the human context that drew him to the project. As a film-maker he is best known for »The Bench« (2000), »The Inheritance« (2005) and »Manslaughter« (2007), a trilogy of films that explore social and moral issues across different levels of Danish society: working class, upper class and middle class, respectively. Although »Follow the Money« is a very different creature – the intent is prime-time entertainment – the series clearly bears Fly’s trademark social sensitivities. It is not difficult to see a sympathy for those lower down in the hierarchy of things.
Like Jeppe Gjervig Gram, he feels that the financial crisis changed our perception of greed and fraud as being confined to the rich upper layers of society. »Before, there was feeling that financial crime happened in the upper echelons, and that they just cheated each other. But then you saw Americans having to leave their homes and loosing their savings, and it showed that, almost always, ordinary people loose out. »This affects my life too« really is the perception that there is around financial crime now,« Fly said in a recent interview.
The plot turns the stereotype of environmentally friendly Scandinavia on its head by revolving around green-energy company Energreen and its charismatic CEO Alexander »Sander« Sødergren, played with icy calm by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, whom viewers might recognise from the third season of »The Killing« as well as Dogme films »The Idiots« and »Open Hearts«. He is the sort of person who can easily attract people to follow him, even far far off the straight and narrow. He is also perhaps the only character in the series that appears to have no personal attachments whatsoever.
Around him are a host of corporate characters such as the increasingly nervous finance director Ulrik Skov (Lars Simonsen of »The Bridge»), who is seen physically getting sick, and ambitious young lawyer Claudia Moreno, played by newcomer Natalie Madueño who has won much praise for her role.
Claudia quickly appears as the most central character in the series and the one whose moral dilemmas are perhaps the strongest because, as a lawyer, she is – or should be – fully aware of the right and wrong sides of the law, and the grey area in between. We follow her as she slowly gets drawn deeper and deeper into the dark corners of Energreen, while struggling to balance her work ambitions with her responsibilities as a divorced mother of a young son – and actively, as a consequence of her choices, risking the loss of both career and child.
The boy provides a compelling mirror to Claudia’s conscience by ending up as a bystander to a number of events, from a dramatic hit-and-run that is by no means an accident (involving a shadowy Swedish »fixer«) to the message delivered to hundreds of factory workers that they will be out of their jobs.
A parallel, but related, storyline involves a pair of petty car thieves whose crimes and motivations may at first appear to be simpler – and therefore perhaps easier to land them in jail. But in essence, the issues of law and morality are the same as those high up in the more sophisticated stratosphere that Energreen inhabits.
On the trail of Energreen’s corporate shenanigans are the aforementioned rogue cop Mads (Thomas Bo Larsen of the Dogme film »The Celebration«), who has his own domestic worries, and the straight-laced financial-crime officer Alf (Thomas Whan) with whom Mads quickly pairs up. Theirs is an odd couple that might have come off as clichéd in the hands of lesser actors, but here it works. It also provides a dramatic device for getting to grips with the financial jargon, with Alf conveniently explaining it to Mads, while the latter’s increasing frustration with the inner workings of the police financial-crime unit (SØIK as in real life Denmark) highlights the challenges of dealing with this type of crime.
»Their coffers are empty. Evergreen is screwed. But we just have to sit here and wait for it to fall apart,« as Alf declares in his own frustration to a colleague. Politicised priorities and a lack of resources are more than hinted at in a number of scenes, and as the series progresses, we are increasingly left with the feeling that the case could easily slip through their fingers.
»Follow the Money« is, of course, a catchphrase made famous by the Deep Throat character in »All the President’s Men«, the 1976 film classic that portrays the Washington Post’s efforts to uncover the Watergate scandal that eventually felled US president Richard Nixon – by following the money trail. In the series, we get our own version, with the financial reporter Mia (Charlotte Munck) and a whistleblower whose identity is not revealed until far into the series.
There are real-life parallels to a number of Danish cases which were uncovered by persevering reporters. Some see in the Mia character a reference to blogger and IT journalist Dorte Toft, who played a prominent role in exposing one of Denmark’s most extravagant financial fraudsters, Stein Bagger, the former head of the software company IT Factory which collapsed in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. Curiously, Toft’s subsequent book about that case is also called »Bedrag«.
In a case of real life overtaking fiction, while the series ran across Danish television screens in early 2016, charges were brought against a number of people following the collapse of the company OW Bunker. The bankruptcy, which happened within just a year of the company’s IPO, is a tale with strong similarities to the one that unfolds in »Follow the Money«.
The Danish press was not slow to pick up on this. And the series has also brought renewed focus on the relatively low number of prosecutions that have so far been brought by SØIK, the Danish financial-crime unit, in the wake of the financial crisis. Out of some 17 cases involving banks that have been investigated by SØIK after the financial crisis, only three have led to successful convictions, according to recent information in the daily Berlingske Tidende. Some legal experts have warned that a number of these cases may never be brought through to successful prosecution due to the statutes of limitation.
With this in mind, and as the final episode ends with many threads yet to be untangled, it is perhaps no surprise that a second series is already underway. It will turn its attention to the banks that, in the first series, provide only minor characters.
»Follow the Money« succeeds because it lets us watch uncomfortably as the characters make their choices and deal with the consequences. We are to some extent left to speculate about their motivations. But we are also left with a feeling that there is no master plan, and that it takes only one small wrong decision to set off a chain of events beyond anyone’s control.
The dead Ukrainian may yet turn out to be a victim without a prosecutable crime.
»Follow the Money« airs on BBC from 19 March 2016 onwards. Read character profiles and more on the BBC website
In this audio clip, London-based Icelandic journalist and writer Sigrun Davidsdottir, who lived in Denmark for a number of years, talks about Danish TV thriller »Follow the money« and real-life financial crime.
You can read her blog, Icelog, at http://uti.is or follow her on https://twitter.com/sigrunda