Estonia (2023): TIFF Series Review

Estonia is the perfect hook for the planned miniseries, providing honest, heart-pounding coverage of an underexplored event in history.

In 1994, the Finnish-owned cruise ship MS Estonia hit a nasty storm and sank. At least 859 people died in the accident, and since it happened in international waters, the governments of Sweden and Finland got involved. To this day, not much is known about how it sank, or what was happening on the ship as it went down. This is where showrunner Miikko Oikkonen and director Mans Mansson come in, telling all sides of the story as it went down. Estonia promises to be a bold, gripping new series, and if the sneak peek in Toronto is any indication, this story will be amazing. For those who do not know the history, this is a good illustration of what happened.

Two major characters who lead the show are Ari Luoma-Aho (Pelle Haikilla) and Mikaela Karlsson (Cecilia Milocco). Ari is a member of the Finnish Coast Guard, tasked with rescuing people on the line. Mikaela is a priest of the Church of Sweden, providing spiritual healing to guide those who lived and those who grieve. Both have different ways of tending to the victims, but both are valid mechanisms. They serve their jobs well and the performances show how dedicated they are to their jobs, making them both the key players in a large ensemble piece. The direction and camera work constantly show their faces, weighing in on the distress of having to endure such a tragedy in real time. These are real people, and their trauma is ours.

Much skepticism has been raised over the handling of how the ship sank. Records are sketchy and investigations of the shipwreck are often halted due to fears of tampering. It is known that the MS Estonia was used to ferry weapons in Soviet times, but it is unclear if there were weapons on the ship when it sank. As with any national tragedy, conspiracy theories abound. The Swedish and Finnish governments are both held accountable as politicians in the show try to save face. Their drama is not the focus all the time, but it is important to hear their side as they try to process shock like everyone else at the time. Each side of the debate weighs in on what happened and what could have been done to avoid it, with no easy answers. All of this happens with any disaster, and Estonia shows one of the most common. Shipwreck narratives cross every country and time period, making this tale resonant in any time.

The series is shot in a realistic, close-up style. Every scene matters as time is spent showing the rescue missions. Before the ship sinks, we see inside the cabin as she springs a leak. Every conference and press statement is shot in shaky cam, but not enough to be a distraction, giving an idea someone is there holding the camera. Mansson carries over his tone and atmosphere from his work on Chernobyl and makes Estonia just as haunting a watch. With stunning realism and grit, this series is given the accuracy it deserves.

Estonia is the first two episodes of an eight-part miniseries. If the rest is this gripping, it is sure to be a success. A story of politics, survival, and emotional trauma resonate as well as inform of an event most media outlets from outside Northern Europe may have ignored. It is grueling and brutal in its portrayal of the event, but still well-made enough to capture and hold attention. Debuting it at TIFF was a bold move, but if this audience response was any indication, it was the right choice. The other six parts should be great.