Society’s divisions laid bare in Belgian crime drama Pandore

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Pandore ★★★★
SBS, Tuesday, 11.30pm and all episodes on SBS on Demand

Power’s ability to distort and corrupt is revealed at the very start of this Belgian crime drama. An investigative judge, Claire Delval (Anne Coesens, also a co-creator), is midway through a speech celebrating the birthday of her father, a leading conservative politician, when she receives a call: his name is on an offshore account connected to a vast bribery case she’s investigating, and a search warrant is about to be served. Claire says nothing, withdraws from the case, and tries to comfort her parents; nothing helps, nothing lifts the sudden burden.

Anne Coesens and Noureddine Farihi in Pandore.Credit: SBS

As an examination of Belgian society, the pinpoint incidents of this 10-part thriller quickly accumulate. Sometimes the failings are quietly incremental or blandly institutional, but others are horrifying. After a public protest at the conservative party’s offices by a group of feminist activists, one of the young women – Ludivine Gilson (Salome Richard) – ends up in a parking garage where a drug deal is taking place, and she is raped by a group of young men, egging on one another in the face of her vulnerability and then torment.

Coesens and her female co-creators, the show’s two directors Savina Dellicour and Vania Leturcq, thread together a complex plot in the opening episodes. A younger conservative politician, Mark Van Dyck (Yoann Blanc) accidentally witnesses the gang rape, but is too scared to intervene. He records part of it as evidence, then takes the abandoned, traumatised Ludivine to hospital, where the case becomes Claire’s new assignment. “I did what anyone would have done,” he replies when praised for rescuing Ludivine, and slowly that line becomes a damning confession that informs the entire show.

Pandore is at first glance a swift and gripping procedural thriller, revealing the workings of the police and judiciary, political establishment and media. But it’s always looking for the ramifications of what it uncovers. When Mark doesn’t hand over the footage, his wily assistant, Krystel Horrens (Myriem Akheddiou), leaks it online, identifying not only Ludivine but one of the attackers, who is of North African appearance. Divisions on race and illegal immigration are stoked, and Mark takes advantage of them with rhetoric that boosts his public profile. Despite his guilt, the populism is intoxicating.

Set under overcast skies and with constant allusions to a public system that’s fraying at the edges, the narrative tests the characters and closely measures their reactions.

At first glance it is a specific work, shot through with Belgian particulars, such as the country’s divide in languages, but the dynamics are just as relevant here. Ludivine’s friend and fellow activist, Sasha Hamzaoui (Melissa Diarra) records an anguished, improvised condemnation of the rape, which brings her to the attention of the media. Suddenly she’s debating Mark, a seasoned performer, on national television, and being offered a commentator’s position.

Each of the leading characters believe they’re trying to make a difference, that they’re justified in their missteps or that their regret is genuine; even Claire uses questionable tactics to try to secure confessions from her suspects. This means that, as engrossing as the show is, it doesn’t offer the simple balm of good and bad, with a guaranteed win for the former. But its willingness to unfold the characters is enlightening. The portrait of Ludivine in recovery, wrestling with trauma and unwilling to be treated as a victim, is deeply nuanced. Pandore rarely stops looking for more.

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