What He Watched: Wallander BBC1
The Observer, 7 December 2008
Replete with blameless blue skies and billowing yellow fields, 'Wallander', the three-part adaptation of Henning Mankell's detective novels, almost literally waved the flag for Sweden. Amid the patriotic colours, there were also some handsome houses and cool interiors, whose combined effect was to make the Scandinavian provinces seem a highly attractive place to live. It was just unfortunate the inhabitants kept being axed to death.
Regular watchers of Morse, Wexford and Midsomer Murders will already be aware of the homicidal carnage that forms the underbelly of the English countryside. But it seemed reasonable to hold out more hope for rural Sweden, what with the country's elaborate welfare system and enlightened social policies. After all, why go to all the hassle of murdering someone when there is widespread sexual liberation and free nursery places?
You could say that particular misconception is the source of much of the angst of Mankell's Wallander novels, the nagging suspicion that the sheen of liberal tolerance conceals darker and more violent social forces, the moral corruption behind the mask of civic concern. Or perhaps it just boils down to the fact that existential despair is as Swedish as Abba.
Either way, Kurt Wallander is a regional variation on a familiar archetype: the detective who can work out everything except his life. Separated from his wife, alienated from his father and struggling to maintain a relationship with his daughter, he's a work-obsessed drinker who falls asleep in his chair. All of which makes Kenneth Branagh an inspired piece of casting.
In earlier years, the actor could come across as a little too eager to please, too hungry for acclaim. But he's since had to contend with some hefty public knocks, and nowadays there's something reassuringly world-weary about the way he carries himself. In Wallander, all baggy-eyed and stubble-chinned, he had a face like an unmade bed covered in iron filings. Conjuring a mood of stoic repression, his intelligently crafted performance stood out like a Gustavian wardrobe in an Ikea showroom.
The film opened in spectacular fashion when a teenage girl immolated herself in the middle of a field of rapeseed - a detail that was unlikely to possess merely agricultural significance. Not knowing that he was a literary creation, Wallander, who witnessed the suicide, failed to pick up on the clue.
Later he discovered that she had been trafficked from the Dominican Republic for the sexual gratification of a liberal elite, members of which were being scalped in the Native American tradition. No wonder he looked exhausted.
The plot lurched from procedural naturalism to whodunit suspense without really doing justice to either. Most of Wallander's detective work was cribbed from a washed-up drunk of a journalist whose key dramatic purpose was to show that, even at his most hungover, Wallander didn't look that bad. Nor was the identity of the killer much of a revelation.
Perhaps the trickiest problem confronting the production, however, was the question of language. As the film was shot on location, authenticity was specifically pronounced. Yet with the cast speaking in English accents, the pronunciation was a long way from authentic.
At first it was as if a community of English expats had set up in Sweden, like the fabled Welsh-speakers in Patagonia. But that distraction soon passed and after a while Wallander's Home Counties enunciation seemed as much a part of the Swedish landscape as the blue skies, yellow fields and bloody corpses. As long as Branagh sticks around, the BBC have cracked a new Morse in a Scandinavian postcode.