How My Missus Made Wallander Less Miserable: Returning As the Swedish Detective, Sir Kenneth Branagh Reveals His Wife Had to Visit Him On Set to Lift His Gloom
Kenneth Branagh makes his return as the Swedish detective Wallander. He says that he had to fight his own demons while filming the series. 'Wallander' makes it return to our screens on 22 May at 9pm on BBC1.
Daily Mail, 13 May 2016
On a remote hillside outside the Swedish town of Ystad, Sir Kenneth Branagh is performing one of the most difficult scenes of his career. His brooding detective character Kurt Wallander has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and this is the moment when the dementia really starts to take hold.
Wallander runs around manically ripping off his clothes until, breathing heavily, he stands in the biting cold, his top half covered by just a flimsy white vest. He speaks wildly but then becomes more lucid, looks desperately in the direction of his daughter Linda and asks pleadingly, ‘Are you my daughter?’
As the director shouts ‘Cut!’, Branagh and his co-star Jeany Spark turn around to see that every member of the cast and crew, who’ve been watching, has tears rolling down their cheeks. ‘It really was everyone,’ says director Benjamin Caron.
‘It was a deeply moving scene that was not only superbly performed by Ken and Jeany, but it reminded people of family members and friends they’ve lost to dementia.
'I know both Ken and Jeany had hardly slept for days before they shot it. They’ve been together since they started filming 'Wallander' eight years ago, and all this was resonating beneath the surface as they came towards the end.’
The scene is not quite the final curtain for Wallander as it comes part way through the BBC’s adaptation of 'The Troubled Man', the last of the late Henning Mankell’s 11 Wallander novels, all of which have now been adapted for the series.
But it offers disturbing proof that the highly skilled detective’s mind is deteriorating alarmingly. After eight years, four series and seven BAFTA awards, the drama that sparked a passion for Scandinavian noir and paved the way for the likes of 'The Bridge' and 'The Killing' on the BBC is coming to an end.
Wallander’s battled booze and diabetes as well as enduring several major crises of confidence, suspension from his job and a painful divorce – now he faces his biggest challenge yet as he signs off with a new three-part series.
It begins with 'The White Lioness' – adapted from Mankell’s third Wallander novel – a story focusing on the discovery of a body in Sweden that has links to apartheid-era South Africa, and which was filmed in and around Cape Town.
This is followed by a two-part adaptation of 'The Troubled Man', which centres on the disappearance of a Swedish naval officer who is father-in-law to Wallander’s daughter Linda.
Wallander realises he has unearthed a major Cold War scandal relating to the Swedish navy, one which may put the lives of his daughter and granddaughter at risk. But it’s also a race against time for him to solve the case as he struggles with his dementia.
Branagh was determined to make the decline in his character’s health convincing and conducted his own research into Alzheimer’s.
‘I started off looking at it medically but then a lot of it became anecdotal from friends, friends of friends and family,’ he says, bright and lively today in a blue linen jacket, jeans and a navy shirt.
‘What struck me most were the stories where people had ended up in absurd situations. There was the father of a friend of mine, an upright and proper figure, who’d been heavily involved with his golf club. He was found wandering on the course, swearing his head off, having never sworn in his life.
‘That’s just a tiny example of the many shades of this thing. In the first series of 'Wallander', Kurt’s father Povel had Alzheimer’s and was found wandering along a road, lost. That is not untypical. My sympathy for people having to deal with these situations is enormous. It must be challenging.’
Branagh was keenly aware that his own character’s descent into dementia in the scene witnessed by his daughter was pivotal to this final series.
‘It’s a crucifying moment in a person’s life when they realise someone close to them is seriously ill, when they realise that what’s affecting their loved one is more serious than just forgetfulness.
'In King Lear the troubled king asks Goneril, “Are you my daughter?” in the same way Wallander does, so Shakespeare was on to that dislocation 400 years ago. It’s both necessary and pragmatic for a person with Alzheimer’s to ask this question. It was tough to do and I was glad when it was over, it had got under my skin.
‘But it’s an interesting approach on behalf of Mankell to put Alzheimer’s into a detective story and give it to a detective. The beginning of the disease is often subtle, and that’s what we try to convey, that sometimes the identification of Alzheimer’s is in itself a detective story.
'There’s an eggshell-walking atmosphere that surrounds it because people are not sure what to say or do. And people don’t want to believe they have the disease so, weirdly for a brain that’s slowing down, it starts to race as the sufferer tries to cover up the truth.’
Far from showing signs of mental fatigue, Branagh himself appears to be at the peak of his powers. Now 55, he’s dovetailed his work on 'Wallander' with directing big-budget Hollywood films 'Cinderella' and 'Thor'. He also won a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for the 2011 movie 'My Week With Marilyn'.
More recently, the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company has taken up a year’s residence at London’s Garrick Theatre, during which he has directed Judi Dench in an acclaimed production of 'The Winter’s Tale' and is himself set to take the lead role in John Osborne’s 'The Entertainer' later this summer.
Despite all his other commitments, though, 'Wallander' has always been a labour of love for the Belfast-born star.
‘It’s special for me, a part I’ve been playing since my mid-40s, when gravity was starting to do its thing to my face,’ he says.
‘Not that I was having to deal with losing the Brad Pitt parts, but I was entering different territory, where the lived-in bit might be the more interesting part of me. I’ve played Wallander longer than I’ve played any role and it’s become an important part of both my life and my career.
'But he pays a very high price for doing his job. Individual cases haunt him, so he’s not only a troubled man, but also a haunted man. If you’re a woman, I’m not sure if you’d want to be in a relationship with him.’
He admits to fighting his own demons while playing Wallander. When he began as the character in 2008 he talked about going to flower shows on his weekends off in Sweden and wearing bright clothes to try to help shake off the gloom.
‘It’s hard to get away from the fact that I’m playing a man who takes the job he does very, very personally, in ways, frankly, that Swedish police bosses have told me he should not. Part of their training is to develop the habit of switching off, and Wallander has always struggled to do that.’
He managed to relax more during the filming of this difficult latest series by inviting friends over, including his wife, film art director Lindsay Brunnock. He married Lindsay in 2003 after two years together.
In contrast to his lavish wedding to Emma Thompson at Cliveden country house in 1989, which crowned them as theatre’s golden couple ‘Ken and Em’, it was an almost secret event. They wed in the New York flat of two actors from his London and Broadway production 'The Play What I Wrote'. There were just seven people present.
His marriage to Emma Thompson had ended in 1995 after he began an affair with Helena Bonham Carter during filming for 1994’s 'Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein'. That relationship lasted four years and, in fact, it was Bonham Carter who introduced him to Lindsay in 1997.
Their paths crossed again in 2001 while making the Channel 4 two-part drama 'Shackleton', in which Branagh played the lead role, and two years later they married. She’s been described by friends as mature and level-headed.
‘Lindsay is different to the actresses he has known before,’ said one when they married. ‘She’s on the other side of the camera, literally and emotionally. She’s less of an arty, luvvie type and more practical. He finds this appealing as it keeps him grounded and they quite simply work well together.’
The couple do not have children. ‘There’s no mystery,’ he has said, ‘it just simply hasn’t happened.’ Instead they live a quiet life in Berkshire with their dogs.
‘She’s like most women in that she’s smarter than most men,’ Branagh has said of his wife. ‘She’s certainly smarter than me and knows me better than I know myself. She understands that it’s great when people love what they do, but also knows they need the right kind of balance in their life.’
HOW KEN GAVE TOM HIS BIG BREAK
Tom – whose performance as spy-with-a-conscience Jonathan Pine in the recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 'The Night Manager' had people gripped for six weeks – played one of Wallander’s detectives, Magnus Martinsson, in the first two series of the drama.
Ken says now that Tom was always destined for greatness.
‘Many years ago Humphrey Bogart said it takes ten years to become a star, and when I saw Tom play Cassio in 'Othello' at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007 with Ewan McGregor and Chiwetel Ejiofor, he made the character so effortlessly charming and he was so adept and easy with the language that I thought, “Boy, this is the start of something, this boy really stands out.”
'He went to the US to do 'Thor', which I was directing, just after the first series of 'Wallander', and he auditioned with a clarity of purpose and drive – not arrogance or over-ambition – which was most impressive.’
Tom then landed parts in acclaimed movie 'War Horse' and the BBC’s 'The Hollow Crown', but it’s 'The Night Manager' that’s made his name.
‘I saw him in that and said to myself, “Hello, this is a star now fully emerged,”’ says Sir Ken. ‘When I was asked if I ever thought he’d become a scorching heart-throb, I said, “Scorching? I’ll tell him that. He’ll love it!”’
Although Lindsay, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, has appeared alongside her husband on the red carpet, they avoid showbusiness parties. While he was making the blockbuster 'Thor', they rented a house near the beach in California.
‘We had a simple time really,’ he said, ‘not doing the Hollywood networking thing. When I’m home I enjoy doing nothing: I’m happy to be sort of dead, walking around dead or just staring into space. We live quite a bohemian existence, going to shows and things.’
Despite the cold, bleak weather, Lindsay spent a lot of time with him during the filming of this final series of Wallander in Sweden.
‘I was more conscious of the need to deal with Wallander’s sadness this time around,’ he says. ‘I had friends who came out on a regular basis, whereas for previous series I’d tended to bury myself a bit. My missus was there most of the time too and it made for a more normal experience.’
Despite his failing health the writer Henning Mankell, who died of cancer last October aged 67, was another visitor to the set for part of the filming and his mere presence helped keep spirits high. ‘He had the biggest laugh around,’ says Branagh.
‘He was very ticklish indeed, a man who wore these big African shirts and filled a lot of space. He made a huge impact. He’d suddenly leap in to a funny remark with a booming laugh. I imagine for someone who wrote a character like Wallander to switch to fun would have been rather therapeutic. Writing a character like Wallander must have affected him.’
If this really is the end, one thing Branagh won’t miss is the Swedish weather they endured while filming. ‘We shot across all seasons and Christ it’s cold in winter! I remember when we first started we filmed in the docks in Ystad with the wind blowing in off the Baltic. It was just bitter and there was this poor fellow playing a corpse and dressed in just a T-shirt. He didn’t get his close-up until 4am, by which point we couldn’t shoot because he was shivering and needed to be taken to a warm place to stop him shaking!
‘In winter, the people around Ystad disappear and the place becomes very eerie. In contrast, they grab the summer, with its 24-hour daylight, and make the most of it. It’s all a bit pagan and a bit lunatic and you start to feel like an extra in 'The Wicker Man'! At 4pm on a working day in the summer everything stops, and the locals wonder why the Brits are still filming when they should be heading for the beach. They reckon it isn’t civilised to carry on, whereas we wanted to work until the filming was done, before winter came round again!’
The makers of 'Wallander' were more fortunate with the weather right at the end of filming. After a month of almost constant rain, off the back of a cold, bleak winter, they desperately needed sunshine for the last scene on a beach.
‘Fortunately, the clouds parted and the sun came out,’ grins Branagh. ‘Maybe that was Henning Mankell sitting up there, smiling and making that happen. I’d certainly like to think it was!’
Despite all the announcements to the contrary, and the exhaustion of Mankell’s books, Branagh says he isn’t quite giving up on 'Wallander'. ‘When I drove away from the set at the end of filming, I didn’t feel it was going to be the last time I’d do so and I was certainly hoping it wouldn’t be,’ he says.
‘It’s possibly just ridiculous, Irish sentimentality on my part, but I think there’s a short story out there, somewhere, featuring Wallander, one written by Henning Mankell.’
At the show’s wrap party in Sweden, he stood up in front of cast and crew and, according to director Benjamin Caron, stated this might not be the end. ‘He said, “To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, ‘I’ll be back!’” People were cheering because they didn’t want it to end. The problem is we’ve run out of Mankell’s books, so maybe a big-screen version? Who knows.’
So might he return? Sir Ken smiles one last time. ‘Never say never...’
'Wallander' returns on 22 May at 9 pm on BBC1.