Branagh Is Drawn to ‘Wallander’

Buffalo News, 10 May 2009
By Sam Allis

Irish actor Kenneth Branagh must have a deep Scandinavian streak in him somewhere.

More than a decade after earning cheers as a melancholy Dane in his epic 1996 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Branagh tackles another brooding existentialist in “Wallander,” a new series of introspective yet sometimes grisly thrillers premiering at 9 tonight on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!”

Adapted from a series of international best sellers by novelist Henning Mankell and filmed in rarely seen locations in southern Sweden, the series revolves around Inspector Kurt Wallander, an insightful sleuth who nevertheless seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Even without the punishing psychological pressures of his job, Wallander is going through an emotionally exhausting chapter in his personal life. He recently broke up with his wife, his blood sugar count is approaching dangerous levels, his daughter (Jeany Spark) is trying to mother him, and his artist father (David Warner) is losing his battle with Alzheimer’s and has started painting the same scene over and over.

Mainly, though, it is Wallander’s willingness to explore life’s big questions while solving brutal crimes that really attracted Branagh to the role, he says.

“There is a rawness to this character that drew me to him,” Branagh explains. “What I liked as a detective character was that he didn’t carry the machismo paraphernalia of turned-up collars and special cars. When we went to Sweden, we discovered that there’s a very egalitarian quality to the way institutions are run. He didn’t carry all the usual ‘character stuff’ from the world of detective fiction. His strength as a detective and his weakness, perhaps, as a human being is that rawness, that involuntary feeling of other people’s pain."

“He is constantly being pained by the questions his work poses: ‘Why do people do appalling things to children?’ ‘Why do previously loving couples kill each other?’ He can’t help but ask big questions about what it all means,” Branagh said. “There was something on the page that told me he just utterly lacked vanity, and I thought it would be interesting to have his existentialist concerns sit at the heart of a program that we’re also trying to deliver as a mystery. He’s a philosopher- poet of a man who lives in the dark and dirty world of solving crimes.”

“Sidetracked,” the 90-minute mystery that opens the series, finds Wallander confronting an especially horrific death, as a young woman sets herself on fire in a field. Why she did it or even who she is is a complete mystery, but as Wallander and his colleague, Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston), search for her identity, they begin to wonder if she somehow may be connected to a string of horrible ax murders currently decimating Swedish high society in the region.

Branagh scrupulously avoided seeing a successful Swedish television adaptation of the Wallander stories because he didn’t want to be influenced by them.

“I met the actor who is playing the Swedish Wallander, a very nice man, but I wanted to get away from him as soon as possible,” he explains. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with that other version, because I didn’t want to get confused by the idea of whether we were being authentic. Ours was a construct, a made-up thing, and I didn’t want to get caught up in trying to ‘act Swedish.’ ”

A second series of three “Wallander” mysteries already has been greenlit, and Branagh says he would be more than happy to continue exploring this absorbing character.

“I get rather superstitious about assuming the audiences may want to watch it for years to come,” he says. “When we approached it, we were very aware of how many excellent detective stories there had been on television and that we really had to earn our right to be there.”

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