Anno 1790 review: Sherlock in 18th-century Sweden

Anno 1790 green light Peter Eggers Linda Zilliacus

So awesome that I almost can’t bear it. And so relevant to today: Are the battles between rich and poor, science and superstition, freedom and repression actually endless?
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There are so many ways in which the 2011 Swedish TV drama Anno 1790 is awesome that I almost can’t bear it. It’s like CSI and Law and Order with a bit of Sherlock and a dash of Les Misérables. Oh, and just a hint of Jane Austen, maybe? And just the teensiest hint of the steampunk? But there’s nothing fantastical or costume-drama fancy about these ten episodes either: there’s a palpable, earthy authenticity to its invocation of late 18th-century Stockholm, all mud and cold, all frilly lace and powdered wigs as little more than lipstick on pigs, mostly.

I also almost cannot bear how relevant it feels to today’s world. Are the battles between rich and poor, science and superstition, freedom and repression actually endless?

It’s like this. Johan Gustav Dåådh (Peter Eggers) is an army doctor in Sweden’s just-ended war with Russia, and he accidentally falls into a job with the Stockholm chief of police, Carl Fredrik Wahlstedt (Johan H:son Kjellgren), as a criminal inspector. This happens because he saved the life of Simon Freund (Joel Spira), tutor to Wahlstedt’s children, in one last battle, and gets suckered into investigating a mysterious death after he escorts the convalescing Freund home. Now, Freund is his new Watson, and Wahlstedt’s wife, Magdalena (Linda Zilliacus), is his new progressive ally in a city in which the despotic king has cracked down on the dangerous revolutionary spirit the French have spread across Europe with their successful people’s uprising. Oh yes, Dåådh studied in France and has been inspired by Voltaire, and is part of a secret band of troublemakers agitating for a republic. His old friends are pissed off that he’s now working for The Man — though he believes in nonviolent revolution and thinks he can drive some change from within — and his staunchly conservative royalist new boss is taken aback when Dåådh forgets to hold his liberal tongue.

And he didn’t even want this job.

Did I mention there’s only ten episodes? Cuz that’s all there is. *sob* But these ten hours encompass a remarkably rich tale of justice at odds with politics and power. The crimes Dåådh is called upon to investigate are almost universally those of the powerful abusing their positions and the weak striking back; the overzealous cops and the domestic bullies and the rapey priests are all strikingly familiar today, as are the satchel bomb in the public house and the question of whether poor pregnant women deserve health care. This isn’t a “social cause of the week” sort of show, however: the ongoing push to make the world a better place — if not, perhaps, for the powdered-wig class — that Dåådh and Magdalena represent is just part of a riveting story tapestry that also weaves in themes of friendship, honor, loyalty, and romance among the murder mysteries.

And it’s not all a downer, either. Dåådh is all about bringing modern medical science — 18th-century autopsies! — and reason to a policing realm primarily characterized by a shocking incuriousness on the part of those doing the policing; Wahlstedt and the rather terrifying jailkeeper Nordin (Richard Turpin) are perfectly happy to let their prejudices and assumptions about everything from cause-of-death to motive rule their decisions about who is guilty. Brainy is the new 1790 sexy, and if Dåådh is more humble than our fannish minds are used to — he’s got all of Sherlock’s smarts but little of the arrogance — he’s just as wounded in a “honey, let me hug you way,” and would probably actually take you up on the offer, unlike Sherlock (despite the fact that he is, naturally, hopelessly in love with Magdalena from afar from the moment he meets her).

So much good stuff here! Dåådh has a spyglass for stakeouts! An entire episode revolves around 1790’s version of Viagra, because ladies must be satisfied. (There’s lots of sexytime here, because they’re all Swedish and pretty liberal about this, at least, even in 1790.) There’s early feminism — “libertie, egalitie, sororitie” — and animal magnetism and an almost mad scientist maybe about to discover penicillin a century and a half early.

Anno 1790 plays like a cracking novel. The only thing that disappoints me is that it comes to a fairly definitive ending that would appear to rule out another series. *sob*

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