There’s a pivotal scene that occurs deep into season one of the spell-binding TV crime series, The Killing (please assume that I will only EVER be referring to the Danish original, not the redundant American remake).
The central murder investigation has stalled, and not for the first time, the indefatigable DI Sarah Lund is chasing another break in the case.
The brilliance of Lund’s finely-tuned skills of detection lies in her ability to see meaning in what others too easily overlook. That tiny clue or whisper of a lead – like a detail in a photograph that less intuitive detectives fail to recognise as a key to catching the killer.
Don’t let the fashion crimes she commits daily via a line-up of unspeakable woollen jumpers fool you. Lund, like the iconic DCI Jane Tennison before her, is the best person to see the toughest case through to its bitter end because nothing else matters more to her than a result.
Not disintegrating personal relationships (with her son, fiancé, mother), the needs of her partner Jan, or even her own safety and welfare. She’ll sleep when she’s dead or the crime is solved, whichever comes first.
But even the dogged Dane finds herself stumped again and again in the course of this labyrinthine mystery that has more red herrings than the Isle of Man (and that’s like, a lot).
In episode 16 of 20, an anonymous source sends Lund a previously missing piece of evidence – some CCTV footage which shows Nanna, the murdered teenage girl talking to her former lover, the politician Holck.
By this stage, Holck is thought (with good reason) to be the murderer and the case is thought to be closed.
The recording was captured at Copenhagen City Hall on the last night of Nanna’s life. The exchange is clearly intense but without audio it is difficult to really know what happened between them.
Again, it is Lund who looks more closely than others at the signs beyond the surface (and sound), even when her partner Jan tells her, “It doesn’t give us anything we didn’t already know”. To him, it looks like an obvious meeting where keys and words are exchanged and a rendezvous is planned for later in the evening.
To this, Lund replies, “You didn’t look properly…they don’t agree on anything”. She shows Jan the tape again. She sees unhappiness etched into Holck’s face – why would he be so sad if Nanna had agreed to see him again?
It is a crucial question in the context of the investigation, but Lund is not equipped to de-code the messages she thinks the video contains, and must recruit help from outside the narrow confines of the police department.
Realising there is still something rotten in Denmark, she goes rogue (again) by taking the tape to a factory that employs deaf staff in the hope that someone might be able to unlock Nanna and Holck’s conversation through the art of lip-reading.
The Killing makes sure to point out that lip-reading is not some mysterious birth right common to all deaf people. The accuracy of the ‘reader’ lies in a combination of factors, like the speaker’s clarity of expression and how well-lit their face and environment is, or how much exposure the deaf person has had to speech sounds, say in earlier life or through hearing aids.
As the factory foreman tells Lund: “Many believe that all deaf people are good at lip reading. But that’s not so. Even the best ones can only read at most one third with any accuracy. And it’s a vital precondition that they know the subject. But if anyone can do it I think Ditte can”.
The arrival of the deaf character, Ditte, in the story made me sit up with sudden excitement, because it is so very rare to encounter ANY deaf characters in television, let alone one who is suddenly so important to the plot. And I really wanted Lund’s shot in the dark to hit its target.
Straight away I felt sure that she would be in good hands with The Killing. It wasn’t setting her up as some kind of soothsayer or her particular skill as a supernatural power to be exploited for dramatic gain.
It’s a Danish television series after all, and subtlety is everything.
But it was allowing for a space in which Ditte’s talent would justly be seen as unique and absolutely necessary in the absence of others able to translate the evidence without sound.
The young deaf woman quickly marks herself as a sharp, perceptive character and at least a match for Lund herself. She is not about to be fooled by the DI’s pretence that she is not acting alone. Ditte asks to see some police ID which Lund claims to have forgotten; Lund averts her eyes, trying to deflect the lie.
Over the next few minutes, Ditte obligingly watches the grainy CCTV footage and signs her translation to the foreman who tells Lund what it all means. She provides the detective with the new information she so desperately seeks.
Lund’s hunch about the encounter is spot on – the relationship is indeed over and there are no plans to meet later – but Ditte’s superior lip-reading uncovers another vital detail that has been hidden until now.
It is a missing link in the chain of evidence and it busts the case wide open, leading to other lost clues and finally, the real killer (I realise that the series is a few years old now but I’ll refrain from spoiling the ending for people yet to see it).
But Ditte does far more than just read the lips of the people talking on screen, she also sees signs of obfuscation and dishonesty in their body language and facial expression. In the things they don’t say. She seizes on a critical moment of deceit from Nanna, betrayed by the subject’s “wandering eyes”.
“Just like when you told me you’d forgotten your police ID and you said this wasn’t very important”, Ditte says to Lund with a smile. She’s not being smug for catching the DI out, it’s just a fact that she immediately spotted duplicity in Lund too.
It’s only a short scene in a very long, complex series, but it stands out as a compelling introduction to a deaf character whose gift for lip-reading is given wonderful prominence in the narrative.
There’s nothing tokenistic or melodramatic about her appearance. Ditte is a deaf woman who has developed a remarkable aptitude for lip-reading and is simply the only person with the resources to shed new light on a dead-end case.
Her skills are rooted in reality, in the way we communicate things about ourselves through speech, but also in unconscious ways, with our eyes, hands and bodies.
And for one lovely moment, Ditte gets to outwit the heroic Lund, and even the shrewdest hearing characters can’t manage to do that.