~ Posted by Rebecca Willis, May 4th 2012
Watching “The Bridge”, the latest offering of Scandinavian noir to reach our TV screens, makes me feel hopeful—despite the increasingly dark deeds of the criminal mastermind who's keeping the police of Copenhagen and Malmö on their toes. That's because of our heroine, Saga Noren. She has the white-blonde good looks of a Swedish ice queen and an unusual brain under all that hair. Saga can’t read social signals, can't relate emotionally to other people, and takes everything literally, at face value. In short, she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum. "I don't think she knows she has Aspergers", the actress Sofia Helin, who plays her so convincingly, told Time Out. "The writer Hans [Rosenfeldt] was very precise about this. She just thinks she's odd". Label or not, she makes Sara Lund in "The Killing" just look mildly workaholic.
Whatever you think of the way she is characterised—and at times it is heavy-handed—her presence and her role are significant if you believe that our fictions—in literature, film and TV—tell us something about our society. Madness and mental illness have been explored from classical mythology through Hamlet and Lear to "Crime and Punishment" and "The Bell Jar". But they are states of mind that could, in theory, happen to any of us. They are narratives about (non-PC word coming up) "normal" people who become deranged. The portrayals of characters with a from-birth condition are thinner on the ground and, I think, relatively recent. Lennie in “Of Mice and Men” springs to mind. So does Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, narrated by a boy with autism, was published in 2003 and takes to the stage at the Cottesloe in July. And now we have the saga of Saga.
Of course there will be critics, asking how it would play if she were ugly, whether we laugh at her or with her—sometimes it feels uncomfortably like the former; judging from the first four episodes, Saga doesn’t do humour. People complained that “Rain Man” perpetuated the myth that people with autism are always savants, with a particular area of genius. And Mark Haddon, they say, doesn’t really know what it’s like to be autistic. Likewise Helin is just acting, but Saga is a potent character rather than a victim, and she has agency—she is good at police work and has an excellent clean-up rate on her cases. It’s a good thing that we have a strong and positive portrayal on our screens of someone who is—in the phrase once coined by a right-on London council—"differently abled”. And as often with matters of liberalism and tolerance, the Scandinavians are leading the way.
Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life