A Swedish Cop, Not a Danish Prince, but Still Melancholy
New York Times, 10 May 2009
For his first recurring role in a television series Kenneth Branagh will play a detective on “Masterpiece Mystery!” But as the title character of “Wallander,” Mr. Branagh, the Irish-born actor-director, won’t be writing poetry, listening to opera or staring moodily into the Channel mists, as sensitive, well-educated Scotland Yard police inspectors tend to do on this series. Instead the perpetually sleep-deprived and disheveled detective he plays will be dragging himself off to pick up body parts at the various immolations, ax murders, scalpings and other bizarre homicides depicted in three 90-minute dramas beginning Sunday on PBS, activities far better suited to the idiosyncratic character of Inspector Kurt Wallander, a Swedish detective who personifies the existential angst of the modern hero in 10 hugely popular novels by Henning Mankell.
“The man is an open wound,” Mr. Branagh said of Wallander, whose red-rimmed eyes and introspective gaze reflect his shock and amazement at the bestial acts of which human beings are capable. “His constant job contact with violence leads him, in a very human and nonheroic way, to question how he leads his life and to doubt the value of what he does.”
Mr. Branagh admires the mournful cops in Swedish, Icelandic and Norwegian crime novels for tackling the big social problems that globalization has created in their countries and in other supposedly stable governments around the world. “The Wallander novels are a sort of requiem for a lost utopia, for the lost innocence of Sweden,” Mr. Branagh said in a phone interview. “Using Sweden as his inspiration he writes of the larger loss of innocence for a world that is expanding in so many ways, but is unhappier than ever.”
Wallander’s morbid preoccupation with human suffering — essentially with how civilizations come to lose their values — carries a cost, however, one with Shakespearian overtones.
“Shakespeare always denies his characters sleep, which produces both heightened awareness and a proneness to melancholy,” said Mr. Branagh, whose extensive credits include a celebrated 1996 film performance of “Hamlet,” a film he also directed. “So while lack of sleep may give you intense insights, that vision is distended, leaving you in an altered state.”
In “Wallander” that distended vision is reflected in extreme close-up shots and impressionist tones of blue that give a watery character to the seaside town of Ystad, where the stories are set.
That eerie look appealed to Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of the project for WGBH, Boston, one of the series’s producers. “The mise en scčne is always a distinctive character in the mysteries we do,” she said, referring to the vivid presence of the Thames Valley in the Inspector Morse mysteries, the sweet country villages in the Miss Marple stories and the atmospheric seashore settings of “Foyle’s War.” Sweden, where the first three episodes were filmed, was something of a culture shock. Ms. Eaton recalls her reaction to a scene shot in a vast field of rapeseed. “That plant is a bright, bright yellow,” she said, “and it went on forever, covering an entire field. I had never seen anything like it in my life.”
Picturesque though it may be, the Sweden of today — the Sweden that sends the brooding Wallander into photogenic funks — is not the same place that Mr. Mankell knew as a boy. “I grew up in a small society way up north,” he said of his upbringing in the village of Sveg, “and I can still remember how visible the poverty was in the middle of the 1950s.”
Despite the deprivations, he said, people did not feel abandoned, because “the government gave a lot of power in making political decisions to local communities, through politicians who lived right in the villages.” In the process of remaking itself into the experimental socialist democracy, Mr. Mankell added, Sweden shifted the political power base far from the local communities. In his view, that contributed to the deterioration of the criminal justice system, because “too many people gave up the feeling that they could participate in the process of democracy.”
“If there is a subtext to my novels,” he said, “it is that the cornerstone of a functional democracy is a working system of justice.”
When Wallander is caught staring off into the middle distance, he is often brooding on some immediate calamity that Mr. Mankell would probably attribute to a failure of the criminal justice system and view as an incipient threat to the larger democracy. In “Sidetracked,” the drama that opens the series, a jolting suicide causes the detective to wonder, “What kind of world do we live in, that a 15-year-old girl should burn herself to death?” No doubt about it, Mr. Mankell is a champion brooder. In the three novels represented in this series — “Firewall” and “One Step Behind” are the other two —he dwells on the evils of the international sex trade, electronic terrorism, child pornography, broken marriages, parental neglect, clinical depression and suicide. In these spare television adaptations (the books’ internal monologues can be seen in the anguish of Wallander’s eyes and the exhaustive police procedures are compressed into meaningful glances and crisp cellphone exchanges), he seems especially troubled by a modern generation of disaffected youth, who often come to a terrible end in his dark narratives.
It’s a profound social problem, he said, one that in the economically unnerving times applies as well to the United States, to most European countries, certainly to the Middle East, and most especially to China, with its millions of unemployed and alienated young people. “Every story I write is a comment on what is happening in Swedish societies,” he said. “But whatever happens to us in Sweden is a sort of mirror reflecting what is happening elsewhere in the world.”