This ambitious and impressive period drama about a nineteenth-century territorial battle between Denmark and Prussia shows there is more to Nordic TV than psychologically challenged crime-solving in a gloomy landscape.

Brothers Laust and Peter, growing up on a farm on the estate of the local baron, grow up and fall in love with the same girl, smart and adventurous Inge. Denmark is on the brink with neighbouring Prussia over the contested region of Schleswig on its southern border, and both boys are called up to fight in what will become one of Europe’s bloodiest wars. Before they go into battle, Laust, forceful and strong where Peter is thoughtful and sensitive, has a tryst with Inge that they both vow to keep secret. But a misdirected love letter to the front threatens a rift between the boys.

The war is waged on Denmark’s side by the fiercely patriotic, principled but hesitant parliamentary leader Monrad, cajoled by feisty and capricious Johanne Louise Heiberg, a leading stage actress who coaches him in tub-thumping speechmaking. His hasty attempted land-grab meets with ignominious defeat at the hands of Bismarck’s disciplined, better equipped and more numerous troops and many lives are snuffed out because of his unwarranted nationalist pride.

Meanwhile, in the present day, pot-smoking dropout Claudia – also damaged by war as she lost her brother in Afghanistan – is forced to take a job as carer to the current baron, a blind invalid living alone in a single room of the dilapidated manor. There she discovers Inge’s forgotten diaries, whose tales of love and loss create a bond between her and the old man, who has a direct and deeply felt connection to the events of 150 years ago.

Fans of The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen will spot familiar actors in surprising new guises, including Borgen pair Sidse Babett Knudsen (prime minister Birgitte Nyborg) and Pilou Asbæk (spin-doctor Kasper Juul) as the flamboyant Johanne and the nineteenth-century baron’s volatile, bullying son Didrich.

A first-rate drama about loss and heartbreak and a cautionary tale about unwise wars and misguided jingoism, 1864 is far from just another Nordic noir by numbers. It’s the history of a year that broke a nation’s heart.

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