Kenneth Branagh: Dementia Scenes Were a Privilege to Play in Wallander
As 'Wallander' returns to the BBC, Kenneth Branagh talks exclusively to James Rampton about how he has struggled to deal with the detective’s illness
iNews, 12 May 2016
George RR Martin once wrote, “Nothing burns like the cold.” He must have been to Sweden. It’s midnight and piercing cold outside a desolate pizzeria on the outskirts of Ystad in remotest southern Sweden. As I try in vain to shield myself from the icy wind blowing in off the Baltic, my face is so cold, it feels like it’s on fire.
Help is at hand. A friendly face appears from inside the restaurant and, seeing the icicles on my nose, offers me shelter inside his warm-as-toast car. Sir Kenneth Branagh, the friendly face in question, is on a break between scenes. He takes a seat beside me in the back of the Volvo. We are here to discuss what is the fourth and (probably) final series of 'Wallander', BBC1’s magnificently melancholic reading of the late Swedish author Henning Mankell’s crime novels, which have shifted 40 million copies worldwide.
The actor is as warm and welcoming as his screen alter ego is tormented and tongue-tied. Big on eye contact, Branagh pays great attention to questions. It is easy to see why he is such a natural communicator, equally at home in front of or behind the camera.
Weather key to Wallander story
This weather, he points out, is as integral to “Nordic Noir” as troubled detectives. “We shoot across the seasons, and Jesus Christ, it’s cold here, it really is. One of the scenes we did was shot in winter at the docks, and the wind blowing across was bitter. One poor fellow had to play a corpse in just a T-shirt. He didn’t get to do his close-up till 4am, by which time we couldn’t shoot because he was rocking with cold. In order not to get the BBC into trouble, we had to take him to a warm place, fast.”
The austere landscape around Ystad is a crucial character in 'Wallander'. “In winter, this area gets very quiet, very eerie,” says the Belfast-born actor. “When you drive over the Oresund Bridge [a location that will be familiar to aficionados of that other haunting Scandi drama, 'The Bridge'], the land suddenly gets very flat and vast. It stretches away from you. We’re just around the corner from a major international airport in Copenhagen, but it feels as though everybody’s cleared off.”
The bleakness is mirrored in the story of the final episode, which has the apt title “The Troubled Man.” It all starts so well for the Swedish detective. By the standards of previous series, which have won the BBC seven Baftas, Wallander is quite happy when we rejoin him. He even laughs from time to time.
Having had a sometimes turbulent relationship with his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark), he is now very much enjoying the company of his young granddaughter. “Wallander has made that leap that grandparents sometimes seem to make,” says Branagh, 55. “Lessons have been learnt from being a parent, plus he doesn’t have to do all the nappy-changing.
Wallander and dementia
“Unfortunately, in a very poignant way, just as this connection with his granddaughter is happening, he also seems to be finding a genetic connection with his father, whom we saw suffering in the first series. It means Wallander is now challenged by dementia.”
As he investigates the disappearance of Linda’s father-in-law, Wallander is facing a race against time, desperate to crack the case before his mental state deteriorates any further. Branagh gives a moving performance that will strike a chord with many families. In one scene, he storms aimlessly around a rain-swept field, gibbering as he distractedly rips at his clothes. As Linda dashes out to her father, he stops and in bewilderment asks: “Are you my daughter?” like Sweden’s Lear.
“I was glad when we had done those scenes. They’re a privilege to play, but they do get under the skin. My sympathy, compassion and admiration for people dealing with situations like that is enormous.”
“One of the very interesting things Henning Mankell does is put into a detective story the idea of identifying dementia, which is in itself a detective story. For the people experiencing it, it’s so perplexing, as they can’t necessarily talk about what has happened.”
Branagh, who became friends with Mankell before the author’s death last year, reveals that much of his research into dementia came from conversations with friends. “The father of a friend, for instance, was very involved in his local golf club, where he was an upright figure. Then one day he was found wandering around the golf course; he was a man who had never been heard to swear in his life, but he was unleashing some pretty rough language that day.
“One of the very interesting things Henning does is put into a detective story the idea of identifying dementia, which is in itself a detective story. For the people experiencing it, it’s so perplexing, as they can’t necessarily talk about what has happened.
“But then they have moments where forgetfulness starts to be translated into something else. That’s when it becomes a detective story for those around them. The rest of the household starts conversations – ‘Did he do that with you?’ It’s a sensitive, eggshell-walking atmosphere, because you don’t want to bludgeon your way in when someone has dementia.”
When I catch up with him a few weeks later in a rather warmer London bar, Branagh is in the midst of a successful season at the Garrick Theatre in the West End. He is currently co-directing (with Rob Ashford) a production of 'Romeo and Juliet'. Then, from 20 August, he will make an eagerly awaited appearance in the title role of John Osborne’s 'The Entertainer'.
On the day we meet, Branagh is performing opposite Rob Brydon in 'The Painkiller', a very funny French farce. He tells me that working on pure comedy is something of a light relief after the unremitting gloom of Wallander. “Laughter is a huge tonic. We’re doing something that is deeply silly. 'The Painkiller' is an attempt to make the audience surrender to 90 minutes of daftness. The audience seems to find that cathartic.”
“The biggest laugher on the Wallander set was always Henning. He was an expansive character who wore big African shirts and had a big, booming laugh. Henning was a fellow who was not unlike Wallander, in that he was preoccupied with what was difficult in the world. But he was also able to switch – therapeutically and necessarily – into sheer fun. In that way, he was an inspiration.”
In news that will cheer Wallander’s millions of fans across the globe, Branagh is leaving the door open to further series. “It’s tough to wash this guy out of your hair,” he says, adding that he is not mad about goodbyes. “Going to Ystad always felt like a significant journey. I’ve made good friends there. It may be ridiculous Irish sentimentalism, but the spell has been cast. So when I drove away from it, I somehow didn’t feel it was the last time I’d be in Ystad…”
‘Wallander’ starts on BBC1 on 22 May at 9pm. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ runs until 13 August; ‘The Entertainer’ runs from 20 August to 12 November, at the Garrick Theatre, London WC2 (branaghtheatre.com)