Branagh Brings Us a Jewel In the Krona

Evening Standard, 22 January 2010
By David Sexton

How often can you call any production faultless? But it would be wrong, indeed ungrateful, to say anything less about the Kenneth Branagh adaptations of Henning Mankell's Wallander novels. They are one of the great treats of contemporary television.

'The Fifth Woman', which concluded the second series on Sunday, opened with the murder of an elderly man in his own garden, watched by an obscure, hooded figure. Then we cut to Wallander driving, with that look of depressed expectancy, to visit his ailing father, so well played by David Warner, in a nursing home. "Take me home -- I can't die here," the old man pleaded, beginning to sob.

Wallander did take his father back to his cottage by the sea. There, over the sound of piping waterfowl, the old man, staring hard, spoke what turned out to be his last words to his son, telling him to look at the world properly, not just drive through it: "Find someone to sit with you."

'The Fifth Woman' turns on the death of parents, both for Wallander himself -- there was a disturbing scene in which Wallander shook the seated body of his father, shouting "Dad! Dad!" before accepting that he had gone -- and in the series of vicious murders of thoroughly unpleasant old men, which he was investigating, which proved to be set off by a bereavement too.

Much more than this it would be wrong to say in case it deprived anyone of the pleasure of watching this classic for the first time. With routine thrillers, dishing out spoilers just saves time -- but it would be grievous to spoil this one. It worked equally well as a psychological study of Wallander himself -- unbalanced by misery throughout -- and as a police procedural, ending in a race against the clock and a gunfight. The two elements enhanced each other, giving the drama a rare emotional impact when they came together, leaving you momentarily uncertain even at the very end who was the victim.

Branagh, often just lumpy in other parts, never a convincing romantic lead, is playing the role he was born for as Wallander. He exudes wounded experience, even in the heavy step with which he walks and the grim way he drives his perpetual Volvo. His sagging and stubbly cheeks, the great bags under his sore eyes, his evident exhaustion -- he kept falling asleep, but never in a bed -- all make you constantly concerned for him (the producers rightly chose not to further emphasise his ill health, or to equip him with the operatic tastes Mankell specifies). No detective more obviously feels pain and guilt for what has gone wrong in his own life as well as in the crimes he investigates.

The rest of the cast is good too, particularly Tom Hiddleston as Wallander's sidekick Martinsson and the wacky forensics expert Nyberg, played by another Shakespearean actor, Richard McCabe. But then the whole style of the production is out of the ordinary. It's at once amazingly slow and grave and somehow actionpacked at the same time. The camera stays with scenes for much longer than you expect, never flinching or cutting away with a pat line or image.

There are long sequences, including those in which you can see Wallander making a crucial realisation, without any speech at all.

For once the whole soundtrack truly enhances the mood, rather than bullying you along, the sombre and tactful music being nicely counterpointed by the batty ring-tone of Wallander's phone. The pictures are exceptional too (apparently, partly because a new "Red One" digital camera was used, which has near 35mm filmstock resolution). Inside, pale faces loom out of the shadows; outside, the flat landscapes and huge cloudy skies change the scale of human activities for good or ill.

You're unmistakeably watching a proper film here, whereas the Swedish versions of Wallander, good though they are, stay locked inside the box. And 'The Fifth Woman' is not just about melodramatic crimes safely external to us: it's about mid-life, about common grief and loss. A true achievement.

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