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Codename: Annika burns slow, but brightly
★★★★ | In De Palma of her hand
I like Codename: Annika. But if I had only seen the first two episodes and had to wait a week for another without assurances, I doubt I would have returned. Not because it’s poorly directed or acted, but because it’s such a slow burning thriller, that demands a lot from the audience right from the beginning.
Thanks to its terrific lead performances and the assured guidance from director AJ Annila, I knew I was in safe hands.
The series itself follows a classic formula. It is one part Brian De Palma, part Luc Besson’s Nikita, and with seasoning of Clarice Starling in its heroine. The further it gets, the more recognizable its influences become.
In lesser hands, those tropes could become overbearingly familiar. But Annila is a smarter filmmaker than that. For him, they’re elements of a fine meal. Recognizable appetizers to season his vision. When you recognize the influences, it’s with delight in how he utilizes them.
Take, for example, the very first stakeout in episode 1. Annika, our troubled double-agent, infiltrates an under the table auction for a supposed fake painting. Her mission is to find out who the buyer is, and where the painting came from. But things quickly spiral out of hand as a striking femme fatale and a stranger, who seems to know Annika, turn up.
Annila directs the scene with long takes and even longer lenses. Eyes dart into every direction, no one trusts anyone else. It’s a utilitarian scene, essential only to provide exposition, yet Annila makes a meal of it the same way De Palma did in Mission: Impossible.
Coupled with terrific leading performances from Sannah Nedergård, Pekka Strang, and a star-making turn from Clarisse Lhoni-Botte, and Codename: Annika has plenty going for it.
Where the series struggles is in the writing. Credited to series co-creator Mia Ylönen, the script is the one consistently faltering aspect of an otherwise solid production. It’s never outright bad, but it never quite breaks into the stride it needs to.
There’s also an odd and slavish devotion to old, hackneyed tropes. Annika carries a large, conspicuous bag to accommodate a fish eye lens camera. Depending on the scene, operators use walkie-talkies that somehow connect to modern Bluetooth earphones. Technology works at the speed of drama.
Sometimes, that devotion leads to unintentionally funny scenes. Like a hokey moment where Annika must convince her target (a deliciously evil Ardalan Esmaili) to hire her by holding her breath underwater for longer than 90 seconds. Or the reveal of an underground gambling house beneath Stockholm.
They’re unnecessary elements that belong to a past era. A time when everyone tried to imitate what Hollywood was doing. Which, ironically, was an imitation of what Europe had done.
In turn, once you start to question their inclusion, the entire production begins to unravel. Why send a rookie barely out of training for such a mission? Why even allow someone with more baggage than an airport at Christmas to serve undercover?
Thrillers thrive on suspension of disbelief, and that disbelief needs a consistent world to survive in. For Annika, it takes a while to establish its own rhythm.
By the time the series realizes that, which is around the third episode, it picks up considerably. As the noose tightens and the masks begin to fall, the results are riveting.
The last half of the season is majestic on its own terms. It doesn’t deliver anything new, but it doesn’t need to, either. Like Annila’s directing, you recognize the elements it builds from, but the flavor is something else entirely.
I like Codename: Annika quite a bit. It asks a lot of goodwill, but it also delivers in spades. If there’s a second season, I’ll be there for it, without question.
Codename: Annika premieres on SkyShowtime on September 30th.