In Close-up Youíll See Evidence of Greatness Is All Over Wallander

The Sunday Times, 10 January 2010
By AA Gill

Of all the weird and uncomfortable recreations the English have invented to stave off suicidal boredom and hush the voices in their heads telling them to take an axe to the neighbours, from tiddlywinks to morris dancing, cheese-rolling to rugby league, none is quite as bizarre or antisocial as the murder mystery. It is one of Englandís great gifts to the world: the whodunit, the novel as conundrum. Half-book, half-Rubikís Cube. Naturally, it lent itself to drama and, in particular, to television, where the detective is one of the most popular and enduring of genres. And I must admit Iíve never quite understood why.

What is it about these stories that so easily and utterly captivates an audience ó and why are most of them women? The audience, not the detectives. After more than 100 years and an uncountable charnel house of corpses, a distillery of empty whisky bottles and a skip of overlooked clues, not to mention the crumpled hats, coats, suits and faces, the only unpredictable thing thatís left about the murder mystery is nothing. Nothing at all. Every single nuance and twist has been repeated until itís all as cosily familiar as a nativity play. And why is it that the winter holidays, that time allotted to family togetherness, warmth, hospitality and goodwill, is also the time we like to spend with multiple murderers? What is it that makes families huddle round the Poirot or snuggle up to a stabbing, a throttling, three defenestrations and a poisoned rock cake?

The elastic has perished from detective fiction. There is no suspense left. There is no pleasure in guessing the perpetrator. Itís either the one person who couldnít possibly have done it or, in the modern way, weíre told who it is up front and the joy is in the cold, procedural slog of reeling him in. Will he be cuffed, shot or fall in front of the 3.25 from Didcot?

Last week saw two giants of the genre return ó Lynda La Plante and Henning Mankellís 'Wallander'. La Planteís 'Above Suspicion' is the post-Tennison brand. It follows closely the tone and tenor of 'Prime Suspect', but without the Thatcherite detective. Now the female lead is a junior cop, Kelly Reilly. Sheís a fine actress who just about manages to outperform her nee-naw-nee-naw siren looks. Her character is a beguiling combination of lonely gullibility and cunning ambition. Indeed, sheís really a young, prepromotion Helen Mirren. The rest of the cast are pretty much straight out of central casting, what youíd expect, indeed, what you demand: hard-bitten, impatient, socially inept, thwarted and sentimental.

The faults and weaknesses of 'Above Suspicion' are endemic to all policemen and their dramas. There is far too much exposition, too much plot-laying, so everyone talks in an interchangeably gruff, staccato shorthand. What character there is comes in clichťd little chunks. If you throw up when you see a body, itís to show you are new and soft. If you eat while looking at a body, itís to show you are hard-bitten and emotionally numb. And thereís all the walking about. Thereís an enormous amount of this: striding, jogging, running, puffing, stair-climbing and bell-ringing. Thereís also far too much incidental music, which tries to make up the atmosphere that the camera and script havenít got time to manage. But itís all well enough done. Itís gripping in a familiar, unchallenging, homely sort of way, like having your hand held by a trusted detective sergeant.

What troubled me was the hysterical gaudiness of the crime. The murder was particularly offensive. Then they kept adding decorative extra bits: more pain, more humiliation, more beastliness, like an insecure hostess decorating a table. The nastiness of the murder was, I expect, added to inject that frisson of horror that has been worn thin by the familiarity of the genre.

Itís something a lot of detective fiction does now: 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' is particularly gratuitous. The crimes in 'Bones' and 'Silent Witness' grow ever more macabre. There is, in all this, a hint of incitement, daring you to a salacious sadism. The body is no longer simply a prop, a mannequin that kicks off the plot ó itís now the central fascination. The drama becomes a grim autopsy. It dares the audience to become blasť about cruelty, and I expect itís a reaction to or a competition with the torrent of grim, consequence-free and contextless violence in computer games.

The bodies we find in our living rooms are emblematic of our cultural sensitivity, as indeed are the detectives. They are weather vanes for the times that create the need for them. Thereís the Victorian, drug-addicted and cross-dressing Holmes, the closeted gay Poirot in the 1920s, Marlowe in the 1940s, Dixon in the 1950s, Z Cars in the 1960s, The Sweeney in the 1970s. The best detective of this new century is undoubtedly Wallander. There is something so unlikely about a Swedish detective, but, as a backdrop, this nation of Lutheran conservatism and extreme social liberalism, stuck out on the edge of Europe, sets up a perfect tension for our conflicted times.

This, too, began with an unnecessarily grisly and psychopathic murder, of a pair of blameless pensioners. The plot itself was rudimentary, the predictable stepping stones of a cop show, solved at last by a piece of CCTV footage that really ought to have been examined right at the beginning. But the point of 'Wallander', like all detective ≠stories, is not the crime, itís the man, and Kenneth Branaghís performance is close to perfect. I know many of you like to point out knowingly that the imported Swedish version on BBC4 is harder and more authentic. Well, thatís as may be, though I suspect subtitle snobbery. But what it doesnít have is Branagh, and his is one of the best character performances you will see on television.

For a theatrical actor, he has a marvellous skill at turning in small, intense and rivetingly unmissable close-up performances. He can convey a kaleidoscope of finely gauged feelings and thoughts with his face and body language. Everything he does is perfectly in tune with his character. Much of the pleasure in Wallander is when nothing is being said, those quiet moments of reverie and doubt, the swallowed anger and disappointment, the unexpressed love and the loneliness. He transcends this slight, under≠powered and underwritten detective story so that you realise what a blindingly subtle and talented actor he is. Every year he has not been on the stage or screen was a waste.

We are wastefully dismissive of our actors in general, while we revere cack-handed artists and third-rate novelists. Perhaps it's because we're overly endowed by theatricals, and while we'll laud a teenage singer who can barely mime, we dismiss actors of unparalleled skill as luvvies. You should watch Wallander simply to see it done brilliantly well. You may not get another chance, what with half the screen being taken up by special effects and animation and the other half by comedians just being "themselves".[....]

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