The Weekend on Television: Wallander

The Telegraph, 1 December 2008
By James Walton

BBC1’s Wallander (Sunday) is based on Henning Mankell’s bestselling Swedish detective novels – and certainly doesn’t do much to overturn the stereotype that Scandinavian literature tends to the gloomy.

Last night’s opening episode began with a teenage girl setting fire to herself while Inspector Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) looked on in impotent horror. Back at the police station, his tearful distress about why today’s young people seem so keen on harming themselves was greeted by a couple of anecdotes from colleagues. One featured a seven-year-old boy who’d tried to cut his own thumb off. The other was about a five-year-old who’d tried to put out his own eyes. And with that, Wallander was called away to a murder scene. "A small axe, I’d say," reported the forensics man. "Almost split his skull in two."

All of which might be enough in itself to explain why Wallander, with his greying stubble and hollow eyes, looks not so much weary of the world as completely knackered by it. Unfortunately, though, his private life isn’t going very well either. He’s recently separated from his wife. His relationship with his grown-up daughter is nervous and awkward. He was about to discover that his dad – not an easy man at the best of times – had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. As the psychological profiler brought in to help find the axe-murderer unarguably put it to him, "You seem to be in crisis at the moment."

In theory, such bleakness is admirably brave for any new drama series, especially on a Sunday night. (Here, even the scenery manages to be desperately sad.) In practice, it looked for a while as if the result would prove just too punishing a watch, with its spare, almost Pinter-esque dialogue and its central theme of the damage caused by fathers. Meanwhile, the political subtext – that "the Swedish social miracle" was based on hypocrisy and deceit – perhaps didn’t have the same incendiary impact on a British audience as it might do on a Swedish one.

And yet, the longer the programme went on, the more its darkness drew you in (or possibly just wore you down) so that you began to accept it on its own uncompromising terms. Once you’d done that, you could then start to appreciate how well it was doing what it set out to do. It was still a bit of disappointment that the key to the mystery turned out to be sexual abuse – once quite a daring TV subject, now a rather clichéd short cut to the black recesses of the human heart. Nonetheless, by that stage, the dialogue and themes not only made dramatic sense, but also added greatly to the desired atmosphere of misanthropic menace.

And then, of course, there’s Kenneth Branagh. Wallander is a show as much about the emotional effect of crime on the detective as about crime itself – and here it obviously helps that the face so regularly shown in anguished close-up belongs to such a great actor. The series still probably won’t appeal to fans of Heartbeat, but if you fancy an undoubtedly classy antidote to the cosy cop show, you could do a lot worse.

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