Recent years have seen Sweden become a high profile source of mystery writers slinging tales of murder, miscreants, and serious social woes, and there appears to be no end in sight. The most well known outside of that country is probably the late Stieg Larsson thanks to the huge success of his Millenium Trilogy, but he’s not alone. Camilla Lackberg, Karin Alvtegen, and the husband and wife duo of Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo are just a small sampling of popular suspense writers from the region. One of the bestselling and most widely translated Swedish mystery writers however is Henning Mankell with his novels about Detective Kurt Wallander.
The novels have been adapted for the screen in Sweden, but in 2008 the BBC aired a series of three ninety-minute films starring Kenneth Branagh as the beleaguered detective. It succeeded with critics and audiences alike and led to a second series of three more films. The three books adapted for this first series are Sidetracked, Firewall, and One Step Behind.
For those of you who only know Branagh as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart or as the director of this summer’s Thor… first off shame on you, and second this series is a great intro to the man’s acting talents. Seriously, the guy is good… I bet he has a fantastic Hamlet somewhere within just aching to tear up the stage or the screen.
Individual recaps are below, but the series as a whole is engaging, beautifully shot, and yet another example of British television’s mastery of the modern day detective series. Between Sherlock, Luther, and now Wallander they seem to have the market cornered on smart but fun series featuring unconventional lead characters. (Especially ones that go by a single name apparently.) Wallander differs from these other crime fighters in several ways, but the most notable one is that he’s far from brilliant.
Where his televised peers work magic with their minds to see the details behind the crime and the motivations of the criminals, Wallander is a boots on the ground type who mixes solid investigation skills with dogged determination. His investigative steps are realistic and consistent, and the detective process is laid out in a believable manner. Branagh’s performance keeps Wallander himself just as real and never lets him rise above the common man with a Sherlock-sized intellect or Luther-like leaps in logic. That increased normality risks making him a less interesting character, but the writers and performance keep him both charismatic and tragic.
In addition to Branagh and the solid performances from the rest of the cast, attention is due to just how attractively shot these features are by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Transition scenes often exhibit a dreamy quality with a soft focus of lapping water, plants swaying in the breeze, and such. Characters are often viewed through window panes as the viewers are given a peek into their private lives, and exterior shots exhibit the natural beauty of the Swedish landscape and weather changes. The series was filmed in the southern town of Ystad, home to Mankell himself as well as the setting for the Wallander books, and the location adds immense value to the stories and people that inhabit them.
Sidetracked – Wallander is called to deal with a young woman trespassing in a sunflower field, but as he approaches and identifies himself she douses herself in gasoline and he’s forced to watch helplessly as she goes up in flames. The immolation is followed by the killing of a popular TV host with an axe to his head in what soon becomes a series of identical murders. Who’s behind these killings, and are the murders somehow related to the teenager who burned herself alive?
Of course they’re related! There are no such things as unrelated cases in detective shows, and this one is no different. In addition to the main story here this feature also serves to introduce the Wallander character, warts and all, and Branagh nails the role and makes it his own. He’s an average cop in most ways, and oftentimes his biggest challenge is the balance between the job and his private life. He’s separated from his wife but hopes for a reconciliation, and he’s at risk of losing his college-age daughter to the strains of the job but struggles to maintain the connection. We also meet his father (David Warner) who’s beginning to show signs of Alzheimers. These aren’t groundbreaking character facets, but Branagh inhabits the well-written role with an unusual energy that allows for outbursts both violent and emotional while still maintaining a modicum of control.
The singular weakness here comes from the predictability of the central mystery. Both the connection between the killings as well as the identity of the culprit are clear early on, but the police still go through the motions.
Firewall – Two teenage girls are arrested for killing a taxi driver, but when one escapes custody she herself is soon found brutally murdered. Wallander’s investigation leads to a plot with international implications and a technological facet that eludes his abilities. His personal life is showing some progress though thanks to a woman he meets through an online dating site that his daughter sets up for him. Can he manage to separate his work from his private life long enough to let someone into his heart?
Of course not! TV show cops never have time for real relationships, or at least that’s what TV cop shows always tell us. Wallander struggles with the balance between his private and professional lives, and Branagh shows the dueling demons well. The story here is a step up from the first film in that in moves in some terrifically unexpected ways and grows to an urgency of vast proportions. As with the whole series, this installment is beautifully shot, but a sequence set in the fog-shrouded woods is particularly impressive.
One Step Behind – Three teenagers celebrating Midsummer’s Eve with a costumed picnic in the woods are murdered, but someone’s sending postcards to the parents pretending they’re still alive. The case and the daily grind become more difficult when one of Wallander’s fellow cops, one he wasn’t particularly close to, commits suicide. He’s surprised to hear from the dead detective’s cousin that the man had considered Wallander to be his best friend. Can he maintain his focus on the case at hand while dealing with a growing sense of guilt over the pain he causes to those around him?
Of course he can! He’s a professional. The mystery here is a good one as the story lines dovetail together organically, and a central theme emerges. Wallander learns that no one lives in a bubble, that your actions have an effect on those around you, and that sometimes your inaction can be just as dangerous. This is easily the strongest of the three features comprising the first series as it does a fantastic job of melding the suspense and action with a powerful and emotional story.
That said, there is a minor predictability issue on a lesser scale to the one in Firewall. A photograph relevant to one of the two threads features an incredibly obvious aspect that no one seems to notice, and second clue regarding the killer’s means is left to hang there for far too long before someone eventually picks up on it.
Wallander is a success for many reasons even with the occasional predictability issues. Branagh is a strong actor, and it’s good to see him back in a lead role after the last few years have seen him focusing mainly on playing minor bad guys. He has a vulnerability about him that helps flesh out Wallander beyond the realm of “TV detective” and into the real world. The show also gets high marks for its cinematography and style that help raise it above the typical American detective series. Both series are available on DVD, and here’s hoping the BBC commits to a third run… Mankell does have four novels left to adapt for us English speaking folk after all.