Kenneth Branagh's Swedish Detective Is Positively Shakespearean
The Observer, 10 January 2010
We've come to expect TV detectives to suffer for their art, but did anyone have a less agreeable work-life balance than Wallander (BBC1)? Kenneth Branagh returned to the role with some familiar distractions as he tried to juggle the demands of his wittering daughter and wrap his head round a double murder while his mentally deteriorating father (the excellent David Warner) went flapping tragically down a country lane in his pyjamas and raincoat.
Examining humanity at its worst is no job for a man eaten up with existential issues, and I notice that whereas the original Swedish Wallander (Krister Henriksson, seen all over BBC4 these past months) is required merely to exude a dour sort of calm, Branagh has been landed with what you might call the full Shakespearean – guilt, fear, self-doubt, regret and stress-related stubble. After only four outings in the part (each producing at least one heinous death he felt somehow responsible for), it's getting hard to imagine him having a good day at the office. But if you want someone who can disintegrate on screen, Kenneth Branagh has at least had the training.
Last week, xenophobia was the stick Wallander beat himself with – anxiety about not having not shown enough enthusiasm for his daughter's new Syrian boyfriend, Jamal, then blaming himself for alerting local vigilantes to suspicions that swarthy migrant workers might have killed an old farmer and his wife. Was there, he agonised, a spectrum of hate between his own equivocal response to the foreignness of Jamal and the neo-Nazis who went around firebombing caravans? No, said forensics expert Nyberg, who knew a thing or too about psychology – everyone suffered from a bit of cultural knee-jerkism. But it was this disquieting thought – this inkling of commonality between him and them – that fuelled Wallander's crazed pursuit of the racist bad guys as well as the regular bad guys we'd almost forgotten about but who turned out to be foreigners after all, working at a nearby travelling circus. Did Wallander have a death wish at the end, coming out unarmed against the gunman behind the dodgems? By then, Branagh's eyes were like bags of cement but, goodness me, you could see the whole of life churning away in there.
The BBC have pushed the boat out with Wallander, perhaps hoping for a Morse, or at least its audiences. It has those stately, convoluted storylines that extend pleasingly just beyond the boundaries of a normal-sized viewer's head; the supporting cast coheres (though the daughter's function seems largely confined to warning Wallander about not eating enough fruit); and it works hard visually, announcing its Swedishness (in a way that the Swedish version doesn't) with stylish shots of rippling fields and huge skies, public interiors with nice curving stairways and pale floors dotted with tasteful Nordic furniture. You might have compared the elegant lines of the high-street bank interior last week with the one in a pre-Christmas Swedish episode ("The Castle Ruins", since you ask) which looked like a 1970s branch of Thomas Cook. Even with bodies piling up – and we had a beautiful dead horse to admire last week – there's always a moment when you find yourself thinking it might be a nice place for a holiday.