‘Ráðherrann’ (‘The Minister’) tells the story of Benedikt Ríkharðsson, a populist MP who is elected Prime Minister following a radical attempt to re-engage the Icelandic public with democracy. His unconventional approach to politics divides Parliament whilst his bipolar disorder slowly begins to destabilise his personal life and the nation. Six episodes are currently out with two more set to be released over the coming weeks.
The Grapevine’s interns, Iona and Jess, who don’t speak Icelandic and have absolutely no understanding of Icelandic politics, took it upon themselves to watch and review the show, with a little help from their good friend, Pinot Grigio.
One of our earliest criticisms of ‘The Minister’ was that Benedikt Ríkharðsson seemed a bit too perfect. Each scene goes something along the lines of this: A politician says something a bit old-fashioned and close-minded, and then Benedikt replies with whatever a politician would say if he was constructed from the collective imagination of every frustrated Tumblr user and Buzzfeed journalist in the world, i.e. “We politicians spend too much time fighting about insignificant details. We agree on almost everything. We just never show it.” As Benedikt urges, ideas of Left and Right are apparently obsolete; we all just want the best for the nation. It’s the sort of thing you could Photoshop over a pretty sunset or print on a tea towel. Pretty difficult stuff to disagree with, but we found it hard to see how a huggable-looking man being “refreshingly genuine” was going to create much drama across eight episodes.
It was, perhaps, a judgement made too soon—either that, or Pinot Grigio started to help—because ‘The Minister’ definitely got more gripping as the show went on. Benedikt’s strengths turn out to be his greatest weaknesses, and we start to suspect that the radical and in-the-moment decisions which make him such a breath of fresh air politically are intimately tied with the bipolar disorder that can also make him impulsive and, in his most unstable moments, perhaps even dangerous. It’s a classic Shakespearean tragic flaw, and it gets better with every episode.
The show is beautifully shot, with the dark and moody ambiance we have come to expect from Nordic and Scandinavian TV shows. So strong are these aesthetics that it is instantly recognisable as one of Iceland’s signature gritty dramas.
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the actor who plays Benedikt, said in an interview with Nordisk Film & TV Fond that “‘The Minister’ questions the sanity of some people in power.” One of the most riveting things about this show is how scenes change retrospectively the more we learn about this particular character. Benedikt’s early speeches, which seemed—at least to us—a little bit unrealistic and maybe even kitsch, change completely when watched a second time. His interruptions during the debate in Episode One stop feeling self-righteous as the viewer learns to see his impulsiveness as potentially symptomatic of a mental illness. This in itself is a challenge to perceptions about people who suffer with bipolar disorder: If decisions can be explained away with a diagnosis, does that take away their value?
Birkir Blær Ingólfson, one of the scriptwriters, explained the idea behind giving the protagonist BD. “It’s such a great embodiment of the Icelandic nation and the national soul,” he says, “Because we keep going up into a manic episode and down into a depression and back up again.” Certainly from the perspective of two British viewers, the show’s dark humour seems to capture this “national soul” well as it swings between the depressing and the surreally entertaining.
So should you catch ‘The Minister’?
Iona: I can’t say political dramas are usually my thing, but ‘The Minister’ definitely manages to cross genres in a way that can keep even chick-flick obsessives like me interested. So I think it’s probably safe to say that if political dramas are your thing, you will absolutely love it.
Jess: Even if you don’t have much knowledge of or interest in politics, the mental health storyline is gripping and intriguing. The Minister is a beautiful example of ‘Scandi Noir’ that has kept me enthralled throughout. Definitely one to watch if you’re a fan of political dramas, stories about the human condition, or fantastic cinematography.
You can watch ‘The Minister’ with English subtitles here.
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