Branagh’s ‘Masterpiece’ Moment

TV Week, 1 May 2009
By Lisa D. Horowitz

Kenneth Branagh has taken his first recurring television role, but fear not, highbrow fans: It’s for PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery.”

Branagh stopped by the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills on Wednesday to talk about “Wallander” with PBS’ Rebecca Eaton, Variety’s Brian Lowry and an audience of devoted fans (of which the Daily Blink is one). The hyperarticulate multihyphenate charmed one and all with his thoughtful, modest responses to questions about the Swedish books on which “Wallander” is based as well as his HBO film “Conspiracy” and even his upcoming comic-book film “Thor.”

“Wallander” is a series of three fairly self-contained films centered on a Swedish police detective, based on a series of books by Henning Mankell (he recently completed writing the 10th in the series, Branagh said). They’re shot on location in the Swedish coastal town of Ystad, and Branagh said he’s going back this summer to film three more of the books.

The Swedish locations, beautifully shot by “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, create a strong sense of place. Branagh described the country as similar to the American West: “It’s the land of big sky,” he said, “very flat. You always feel as if you’re in a massive wide shot in a movie, or in a landscape painting.”

Those large empty spaces, he explained, leave plenty of room for introspection and reflection, key aspects of the Swedish character. And in the films, “under those scenes of great beauty is a sort of tension,” he said. Eaton added, “The landscape here is as much of a character as the Thames Valley is in ‘Inspector Morse,’” the popular PBS mystery series about a police detective in a small town.

Asked by Lowry what clears the bar to become a “Masterpiece” project, Eaton admitted that the head of Barnes & Noble had told her to read Mankell’s books because they would be good “Mystery” fodder, but she hadn’t gotten around to it before the project was suggested to her. In this case, she said, “It was Ken’s involvement. Often it’s the actor,” as well as the title, production values and script. But the simple test is whether her husband is still awake past the opening credits, she admitted. “Please don’t ever tell me of anything of mine he fell asleep on!” Branagh said in mock horror.

Wallander isn’t your typical detective, they agreed. “He doesn’t have a macho swagger,” Branagh said. “He does not arrive at the crime scene and say, ‘What have we got?’ He arrives like an open wound, prepared to be bruised by his personal response to the violence of the crime.

“The man who wakes up at home is the man who turns up to work,” he continued. “He doesn’t put on the British carapace of dealing with the world,” the “stiff upper lip.” He’s flawed and complex, not to mention coping with a recent diagnosis of diabetes.

Lowry asked, “Was there a moment’s thought of doing a Swedish accent?”

Branagh replied with a laugh, “Yes, you are right, literally a moment’s thought. I’m afraid I was closer to the Swedish Chef from the Muppets than to actual Swedish!”

Of course, the question of the big-budget, comic-book-derived film version of “Thor” had to be addressed. “It seems all I take now is Scandinavian projects,” Branagh quipped. “I spend half my life playing Hamlet, then a Swedish detective … I’m looking for my Finnish epic next!”

He admitted he may not be prepared to deal with the “tremendous fan base and community of devotees to the world of these comics,” but added, “It’s pretty exciting.”

However, that doesn’t mean he has abandoned the Bard, he said. “There are always plans for more Shakespeare films,” he told an audience member. “I feel undeniably privileged to have done the ones I have so far. … If I never made another one, I’d have been the luckiest boy in Christendom. But I will try to make another.” In fact, he said, he’s working on adapting “The Winter’s Tale” to film, which now “just requires the Herculean task of persuading someone with a large checkbook….”

He praised HBO for being “wonderful partners” on his version of “As You Like It,” and accepted praise for another HBO project, “Conspiracy.” That re-creation of the Wannsee Conference, which laid out the Nazis’ plan for the Final Solution, “was far and away the most disturbing thing I’ve ever been involved with,” he said, although “I knew it was important work when I first read it. I admired the writing and the directing, but I did not enjoy it.”

Eaton was asked why “Masterpiece” doesn’t rerun some of its older programming. Referring to the questioner’s example, Eaton said, “If I were to show you the old ‘Jude the Obscure,’ you’d doze off! Storytelling has changed. Also, it would cost us money” that can instead be spent on new productions. Eaton also opined on how frequently a classic can be remade: “I thought it should be a generation between” remakes, she said, “but I found out you can do ‘Pride and Prejudice’ about every five years.”

The three “Wallander” films air on PBS stations at 9 p.m. on May 10, 17 and 31.

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