The Accent Is On a Swedish Sleuth in 'Wallander'
Long Linked to Shakespeare, Branagh Now Plays a Silent Swede
USA Today, 7 May 2009
Sweden through a glass darkly. And a British glass, at that.
The Swedish portion of this three-part Masterpiece Mystery! import comes naturally, if not precisely easily. Based on a series of books by Henning Mankell about asomewhat sad-sackish Swedish detective, Wallander was shot on location in southern Sweden, a part of the country that is considered remote, apparently, even to other Swedes.
The location shots are gorgeous, in a gray, dour, evocative kind of way that befits the grim tone of the show. Wallander is not exactly a detective story as told by Ingmar Bergman, but it's much closer to that than it is to 'The Mentalist' or Castle.
Indeed, as played by Kenneth Branagh, Kurt Wallander is so care-worn and weepy — he cries in each of the three episodes, a detective record — he makes Inspector Morse look cheerful.
Still, for an American audience, the cries-and-whispers approach isn't the problem. Indeed, in some ways, it's different and provocative enough to be a draw. No, the issue for many is sure to be the odd (some would say culturally arrogant) decision of the British producers to use British actors and British accents, even to the extent of transferring the country's linguistic class distinctions to the Swedish characters.
The lengths they go through to maintain this charade are a wonder to behold. When Wallander types an e-mail, he reads it out loud in Oxford English, but the words pop up on his computer in Swedish.
No doubt that made sense to the BBC. Here, however, it's off-putting, and it makes you question why they didn't just move the stories to England, particularly since nothing about the plots makes you think they couldn't have withstood the transfer. The imposed Britishness is not a deal-breaker; there's more than enough in Wallander to keep a late-season audience entertained, but it is a drawback.
One other warning: Wallander ranks among the darkest, most violent programs Mystery has ever aired. The opening outing is particularly gruesome, starting with a woman setting herself aflame and leading to a man being smacked in the head with an ax. Each episode has moments that go beyond the franchise's usual prim propriety.
Holding this all together is Branagh's appealing performance as the overworked, under-socialized Wallander, a middle-aged man whose personal life is falling apart around him. His wife has left; his daughter sees him as a makeover project; and his friends include people he doesn't know as well as he should.
The cases he tackles are intriguing, if wildly complicated and too often sustained by that peculiar TV mystery mix of intuitive leaps and bad basic police work. It's a marvel how Wallander can be smart enough to figure out where a murder target is hiding and stupid enough to leave her alone once he has found her.
Yet as with all such shows, it's the main character who provides the main reason for watching, as the long-suffering Wallander struggles to solve the crimes and put his life back in order. Now and then he even smiles, though it's rare enough to catch you off guard. And if he never seems Swedish, well, this is America, where British is equally foreign.
And on Sunday, equally dark.