Saturday saw the premiere on BBC4 of the new Scandi drama 1864, written-directed by Ole Bornedal, best known for his 90s thriller Nattevagten. The series premiered in Denmark a year ago with some controversies. The co-production between DR (the public broadcaster in Denmark) and independent producer Miso Film saw a staggering budget of around £17 m, a stellar cast, and an epic backdrop of true cinematic scope. 1864 was the year when Denmark lost its war to repossess the Schleswig-Holstein region; after the First Schelswig War (1848-1851) and the Second Schelswig War (1864) the treaty of Vienna determined that the regions had to be surrendered back to Prussia and Austria. It was a burning defeat.
It is the aftermath of the First Schleswig War; soldiers return to their homes. For farmer Thøger (Lars Mikkelsen), it’s a happy reunion with his wife and his two boys, Peter and Laust. For Didrich (Pilou Asbæk) the horrors of the war are still vivid memories which continue to haunt him. In Copenhagen, nationalist ideologue DG Monrad (Nicolas Bro) has been training with actress Johanne Luise Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in order to boost his rhetoric skills and impress the crowds. The series also follows a present-day storyline which sees a rebellious teenager whose brother died in the Afghanistan War, forming a friendship with the elderly owner of Didrich’s estate. What links both these stories together is the personal diary written by Inge (Marie Tourell Soderberg), who we see becoming intertwined with brothers Peter and Laus.
The series is not afraid to take its time to develop. We are allowed to spend time with the main characters, watch them grow. In the second episode, Peter (Jens Sætter-Lassen) and Laust (Jakob Oftebro) are young men dealing with their first tragedies and love interests. Love sparks between Laust and Inge but the shadow of War is looming ahead. Be aware, this is not a thriller, nor an action drama, and forget all the grim Nordic Noir procedurals. Still, you will be surprised by this raw, bold and idillic (in equal measures) portrayal of life in the 19th century Denmark. When thinking about 19th century period dramas, at least in the UK, we normally picture either the pastel-coloured ballrooms of Austen’s Regency Era, or the smoky grey facade of Early Victorian London. 1864 comes with a refreshing new panorama made of rural scene of bucolic beauty – beautifully captured by cinematographer Dan Laustsen – and uncensored glimpses into the everyday lives of people spanning across different social backgrounds.
The series also addresses the effects of nationalism and blind euphoria shared by an entire country – for once, the Germans are not the bad guys and Denmark appears like possessed by a blind faith to be God’s chosen people, and very few understand the horrors this war will bring with it. It is perhaps for these reasons that the right wing party in Denmark accused the series of rewriting history. However, the controversy brought even more people to watch the period drama with a share of more than 50 per cent.
1864 comes as a new bold look at a controversial part of history that affected the whole of Europe. It seems like Danish television keeps reinventing itself in a way broadcasters like the BBC have yet to learn. With excellent performances throughout and cinematic-like production values, 1864 is not to be missed.
You can catch up with 1864 on BBC iplayer, and every Saturday on BBC 4