Department Q – A Conspiracy Of Faith (Flaskepost fra P)

Denmark (2014) Dir. Hans Petter Moland

Bringing the Department Q trilogy to a close is perhaps the darkest of the three films, which may sound like a tall order considering how brutal the first two – Keeper Of Lost Causes and The Absent One – were. With religion as a central theme and children as the target of a serial killer however, this dubious accolade is very well deserved.

A message in a bottle is found washed up on a beach eight years after it had been sent. The barely readable missive is written in blood, possibly by a child, and contains religious references. Department Q – detectives Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares Fares) and secretary Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt) – determine through careful study in recreating the body of the message that the writer was a Jehovah Witness.

Whilst investigating the unreported eight-year-old case of the disappearance of two brothers of which only one returned, young siblings Samuel (Jasper Møller Friis) and Magdalena (Olivia Terpet Gammelgaard) are similarly abducted from a Jehovah Witness community, but curiously, their parents Elias (Jakob Ulrik Lohmann) and Rakel (Amanda Collin) refuse to report it to the police.

In case anyone with pious leanings is reading this and is concerned that this is an attack on faith, I can assure you it isn’t; however Jussi Adler-Olsen, who write the original novels these film are based on – does raise some interesting questions about the power of faith and puts it into a different perspective through a nightmare scenario any parent would hate to endure.

Elsewhere this is used to create a long overdue open dialogue between Carl and Assad which has hitherto remained closed due to Carl’s continued insular behaviour following the trauma suffered in the first film. Being a Muslim Assad naturally has an empathy with the bereaved families not to mention his own code of conduct born out of his faith, all of which is alien to the faithless Carl.  

A discussion about the veracity of God’s existence and the meaning of faith gives way to the first real argument between the two – the normally passive Assad flaring up at Carl’s assertion that Assad should be too smart to believe in God, just because Carl himself believes in nothing. This clash of philosophy isn’t serious enough to jeopardise their working relationship but it does put a temporary dampener on their usual chemistry.

The man behind these abductions is Johannes (Pal Sverre Hagen), a seemingly polite and unassuming chap and a friend of the families in the Witness community. Being bilingual – his second language is Norwegian – allows Johannes to cover his tracks when tormenting his captive’s parents for the ransom and not reveal himself to them as someone they know and trust.

Unlike the previous antagonists in this film series, Johannes has a motive for his actions, albeit a dangerously skewed and psychotic one forged by an upsetting childhood incident revealed in the final act. This doesn’t justify what he does by any means but offers a horrifying look at the worst-case scenario of the results of when a child’s psyche is abused during the formative stages.

There is a method to Johannes’ madness that forms the basis for the questioning of religious belief – Johannes targets Jehovah Witnesses for a simple reason: their belief in God is so resolute to the point of intransigence they would refuse outside help when needed. In other words, They believe God would return their kidnapped children or heal them if they were ill, and if it doesn’t happen, that is God’s will.

For this reason Carl and Assad face a frustrating uphill struggle to get Elias and Rakel to let them help, especially Assad who gets the “not his kind” treatment from Elias. For those of us without faith, this portrayal does little to endear the parents to us and merely reinforces our cynicism towards what we perceive as cruel manipulation and brainwashing.

Luckily, to keep this story moving, Elias eventually relents and an exciting game of cat and mouse ensues when Johannes makes the call for the ransom drop. From here two tense set pieces push the energy level up and shred our nerves, the first being an old staple of the crime thriller, the train journey. It’s difficult to make this set up original but Adler-Olsen throws in a couple of surprises to freshen it up a bit.   

Stepping into the director’s chair for this outing is Norwegian Hans Petter Moland whose different approach from his predecessor reveals itself in a chilling final act involving Johannes and his junior captives. The unnerving coldness and equanimity Johannes exhibits as he taunts Carl with the lives of the young siblings is played out in an enclosed watery location and shot in a muted colour palette to heighten the gravity of the situation.

Once again Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares slip into their respective roles of Carl and Assad like a pair of old slippers, this time afforded a little more one to one interaction to explore their characters a little more deeply. This extends to giving Carl an extra layer to his complex persona with the effects of his psychological trauma finally getting the better of him, reminding us that he is still a human being.

As the chief antagonist, Pal Sverre Hagen avoids the tendency to make such an amoral and emotionally detached person appear robotic, suffusing his cold edge with a hint of quiet charisma to make him tacitly dangerous. Deserving praise also are the two young actors whose characters endure a lot of hardship and horror, which I hope doesn’t have any traumatic after effects for them.

The contentious subject matter and disturbing blackness of A Conspiracy Of Faith offers enough substance to compensate for the Nordic Noir crime thriller conventions it often succumbs to. A small gripe but one not worthy to hold against this suitably emotional conclusion to the hugely enjoyable Department Q trilogy.