The Weekend's Television: Wallander
The Independent, 1 December 2008
The titular detective in Wallander is gloomy – a crapulous, grey-looking figure in Ken Branagh's characterisation, poised unhappily between hangover and nervous breakdown.
Wallander's surroundings are anything but gloomy, though. Should he want to look on the bright side, he only has to lift his head, because this BBC adaptation of Henning Mankell's Swedish thrillers is as vibrantly colourful as anything we've seen on screen for months. The mood is noir, darkened by corruption and human cruelty and compromised justice, but the look is primary-colour picture book, gleaming with northern light. The opening scene gave a fair sense of the combination: in a field of glowing yellow rape, a terrified girl panicked at Wallander's approach, poured petrol over her head, and ignited a great marigold blossom of flame.
This didn't exactly improve Wallander's mood, and, as I've said, he's not exactly one of God's little sunbeams to start with. He's separated from his wife and living alone in bachelor squalor. His daughter is exasperated with him, his distant artist father is showing the early signs of Alzheimer's, and wherever Wallander looks he sees evidence of social decay. He's testy, too. When a brash young policeman in the office suggested that the fatal hatcheting of a prominent former politician might take precedence over the suicide of an unknown teenager, Wallander snapped back: "Fifteen-year-old girl burns herself to death and you don't think that's a crime?" If society turns out to be to blame, Wallander wants it in the dock.
All but the most half-witted viewer would already have guessed that the two crimes are connected anyway, and as a serial killer with a penchant for scalping his victims worked his way through Swedish high society, that link was gradually revealed. Sitting waiting for it to emerge was often a visually dazzling experience, the camerawork as attentive to the contours of Branagh's stubbly, despairing face as it was to the Swedish locations in which the action took place or the bruised pastels of a Munch sunset. But it couldn't really be said to be thrilling or unexpected. Branagh's playing of Wallander is utterly heartfelt, but the character oddly feels shallower than the performance, the disaffection and Weltschmerz just another detective gimmick.
The Pyramid by Henning Mankell is published by Vintage on Thursday; 'Wallander' starts on BBC1 in November