Wallander (BBC One)

The Telegraph, 4 January 2010
By Benji Wilson

What better prelude to the total calamity of having to go back to work after Christmas than a 90-minute 'Wallander' binge? The return last night to BBC One of the Swedish detective with the permanent mien of a recently slaughtered halibut made for top-notch drama, but if you needed a reminder that the festive season is over, well, Kenneth Branagh’s face was it. The only remotely heartwarming thing in the whole episode was the sound of Wallander’s mobile ringtone, chirping incongruously every time something bad happened.

Most of it, bar the initial brutal double murder, was Wallander’s fault. He’d reached the dying old lady in her remote farmhouse just in time to ask her who had killed her and her husband, but all she could muster was a “Fffff” sound as she expired, like a leaky radiator. Wallander mentioned in passing that he thought this might, just maybe, have been her saying “foreigner”, but he definitely wasn’t sure and he most certainly didn’t want to start a witch hunt. Immediately, a witch hunt started: someone at the station leaked the news and Ystad was thrust in to a xenophobic maelstrom.

It came on the back of Wallander meeting his daughter’s new boyfriend Jamal, who was “Ffff” himself, and so Wallander started questioning whether he was a racist, somewhere deep in his “stupid little provincial head”, who was thereby responsible for the whole ugly to-do. Cue mental tailspin, complete with junk food, boozing and staring at flies on windowsills, who had the distinct air of being to wanton boys as Wallander was to the gods.

Of course, in the furrows and stubble of Branagh’s pudgily perplexed face, all of this misery was an absolute delight. Sometimes you sense 'Wallander' knows that its lead actor is such eminent Bafta-bait that it can push the viewers to new extremes, safe in the knowledge that a languorous shot of Branagh’s mind on a hot wash will win us round again. It means that the scriptwriters, in this case Richard Cottan, get a certain leeway with plotting (there are times in 'Wallander when stuff happens at the pace of bank base rate adjustments) and dialogue (no actor should ever have to say, “I have to see this through... I have to.” But in Branagh’s hands it was almost transcendent.)

It helped that the Sweden of 'Wallander' is the perfect place for things to go really, really wrong. This is a land that has “world’s best healthcare” written across every perfectly primped eco-bungalow and start-first-time Volvo. Even the police station looks like something from Elle Decoration, yet it is this environment of effortless decorum that is perfect for intimating roiling evil under the worked-walnut surface. 'Wallander' is decidedly eerie and, which is more, it feels different. It may be slow, but you always travel in discomfort.

Cry foul if you will at a detective face-off with 'Wallander' in the red, or more likely elegant shade of ochre, corner and 'Poirot' (ITV1) in the blue, but both happen to be big-hitting detective shows for their respective channels, screened on the same night. Wallander won with a wallop.

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