The Weekend's Television: Wallander
The Case Goes Cold
The Independent, 4 Janaury 2010
Kenneth Branagh's bristles are very important to Wallander. They're a short cut to the character, for one thing, a marker of his anomie and depression.
But they also show you how sharp the cinematography is, his face regularly looming up in the screen like a glum test card for the crispness of the focus. And that's the series's distinctive trademark, a Scandinavian clarity of light and design yoked to plotlines and settings that undermine our conventional prejudices about Sweden as a kind of giant Ikea room set. The horizons are nearly always low in the frame here – a landscape composition familiar from the kind of off-the-peg art photography you can buy at Ikea – but what's going on in those landscapes is anything but serene. Last night, it was the violent murder of an old couple, a crime that tugged Wallander away from an awkward dinner with his daughter and her new boyfriend and gave him ample scope for the angry dejection that is his trademark.
The dinner and the murder turned out to be connected, not by any direct link but because Wallander's unseemly stab of discomfort at the race of his daughter's boyfriend colours (the apposite word in this case) his investigation of the crime. As he cradled one of the victims in his arms, she whispered a word to him. He knew it began with F but was it "farmer" or "foreigner"? Disturbed at the little pulse of racism he'd just detected within himself he resisted the latter suggestion, which didn't stop word getting out anyway and provoking retaliatory violence from local bigots. And naturally when that happened Wallander felt even more guilty, and looked even more intractably gloomy.
There was a good subject here – racism being far more insidious than good liberal types will sometimes credit, and terror of racism doing its own kinds of damage. But is Wallander really as good as it clearly thinks it is? If you've a large appetite for the symbolic you may well love it. There was a white stallion here that kept turning up whenever the drama needed another injection of poetic weltschmerz, sometimes posing against a skyline and finally dead on the blacktop of a country road, where it was presumably intended to represent something deeper and sadder than a dent in some poor sod's no-claims bonus.
But you needed a certain amount of patience, both for the ponderous self-regard with which the whole thing proceeded and for the way it dipped back to stock conventions the moment the action hotted up. How familiar does this scene feel, for example? A large squad of policemen swamped a fairground looking for a suspect but when our hero spotted him and pursued him away from the bright lights into a warren of caravans he was instantly alone and at risk. None of his colleagues followed him and so he was free to act out a profoundly implausible little pantomime of reckless endangerment, walking steadily towards a man with a gun. Wallander, to put it bluntly, is a solipsistic drama queen, and the series that bears his name shows no awareness at all of how irritating such people can be.