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▶ Man in Room 301 is streaming on BBC iPlayer.
Doomy Nordic thrillers have become such a staple of television in recent years – often though not exclusively via the ‘Walter Presents’ collection on Channel 4 – that it was surely only a matter of time before Finland got in on the act. So now, following Walter’s disappointing All the Sins, comes the BBC’s first Finnish offering: the six-part Man in Room 301 (Huone 301), screening on BBC4 and iPlayer.
But anyone expecting the kind of dark-textured police procedurals we’ve had from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland may be in for a surprise. Most of the scenes in this series play out in daylight, some even in full Aegean sunshine; and the police figure only rarely and marginally. Instead, what we get is the drama of a tormented, selflacerating family that at times recalls Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night or even Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2008 film Still Walking.
Originally written in English (though always planned to be set in a Finnish context), Room 301 was scripted by actor and screenwriter Kate Ashfield (Liz in Shaun of the Dead, 2004; Mary Parker in Sanditon, 2019; co-writer with Tracey Malone of Born to Kill, 2017).
The action shuttles repeatedly back-and-forth between two time periods. In 2007 21-month-old Tommi, youngest member of the Kurtti family, is shot dead in the woods near the lakeside villa where the family is spending the summer. Blame for the killing falls on Elias Leppo, a sullen, acne-pitted preteen living nearby, given to petty shoplifting and with an ominous fascination for knives and guns. He’s convicted and consigned to a rehabilitation centre. Twelve years later the Kurttis, still traumatised by Tommi’s death, plan a family holiday on the Greek island of Kos. Sometimes onscreen dates signal the time changes, but more often the action switches unannounced, relying on us to deduce from visual evidence which year we’re in.
At the outset of the drama some patience may be needed: in the opening 15 minutes we meet a dozen or so characters, few of them named and with little indication how they relate to each other. But gradually, as essential details emerge and connections are established, the tensions – both narrative and family – start to bite.
It’s midway through the second episode that we see the rifts in the Kurtti clan gaping at their widest, at an alfresco Midsummer’s Day dinner not long before Tommi’s death, at which the bitterness between controlling patriarch Risto (Antti Virmavirta) and his elder son Seppo (Jussi Vatanen) comes to the boil. “Let it go?” sneers Seppo in response to his father’s injunction. “I’m so fucking tired of how we let everything go in this family. Let it go that you’ve never accepted me in your family?” It should be a joyful occasion, too: Seppo’s sister-in law Leena (Kreeta Salminen) announces that she’s pregnant. But her husband, Seppo’s younger brother Mikko (Andrei Alén) seems less than delighted, and there’s a palpably sardonic edge to Seppo’s congratulations. We soon learn why.
All these simmering resentments – plus the lasting wound left by Tommi’s killing – carry over into the events of twelve years later, and the ill-fated family holiday in Greece. It’s here that Room 301 is at its weakest, with the Greek scenes feeling drawn out and repetitious – not least since the whole question of the titular inhabitant of 301 turns out to be something of an overdeveloped red herring.
But the running theme of endangered children sustains its disquieting undertones, especially in the final two episodes, where the focus of threat appears to shift to Seppo’s two teenage daughters, Anna (Asta Friman) and Tytti (Linnea Skog), back in Finland. It’s the more resonant in that the final act of the drama plays out in the same forest setting where Tommi met his death.
Some casting choices seem anomalous. Of the various young men suspected by the paranoid Kurttis (and by Risto especially) of being the grown-up Elias, the one who finally proves to be the suspect looks so different from the 12-year-old delinquent that one can only assume he must have had cosmetic surgery. It’s established early on that Seppo has a drinking problem; scenes of him at AA meetings don’t add much. Here as at other junctures, Man in Room 301 can feel a touch over-extended; five episodes, rather than six, might have wrapped it up without much loss.
Still, the excellent all-Finnish cast (archetypally stoical even in the face of tragedy) retains our attention and – despite everything – our sympathies, with Mikko Kuparinen’s subtly understated direction often focusing in on hands as much as on faces to suggest suppressed emotions. In the Channel 4 drama Born to Kill, Ashfield examined a 16-year-old boy who harbours psychopathic tendencies. On the strength of these two series, it seems like there’s some promising territory for her to explore further.