Henning Mankell Remembered by Kenneth Branagh
The actor starred as the Swedish crime writer’s detective Kurt Wallander. Here, he recalls his last meal with the man he came to know as a good friend
The Observer, 27 December 2015
The last time I met Henning Mankell was in Copenhagen, on a cold December’s evening in the winter of 2014. We met in the restaurant of a hotel on the harbour. In the seven years that we had known each other, we made 12 television films from his Wallander books and talked together regularly.
With Henning, the subjects were usually, and in no particular order, Africa, politics, the sea, theatre and family. He was a serious man. No small talk. He valued his time carefully.
Our first meeting was on Fårö, the summer home of Ingmar Bergman, Henning’s father-in-law. He was dressed for the sun. We had dinner together with friends and family, in the bright white night of a Swedish summer evening. He stood up to make a speech at supper. He often did. He liked to mark occasions. This was the beginning of the English-language Wallander being made for television and he was pleased and excited.
Now, seven years on, our English Wallanders were coming to an end, and he was keen to mark this moment too, even though we were both a little sad about it, and more importantly, he was now living with cancer.
He asked me if I would join him in having the chateaubriand. It had to be ordered for two and we shared giggling confessions that neither of us had ever ordered such a thing in a “fine dining” establishment. We were both intrigued to try this dish that was only for two and ordered with some excitement.
Needless to say, the wine then became something that we felt also ought to be special and Henning joined me in a childlike pleasure at the sommelier’s suggestions. Given all the additional expense in prospect, we had our usual exchange about who was going to pay. Over the years, and many dinners, we were probably even, but now, this evening, he was absolutely insistent that he would pay.
“No. This is me, Kenneth.”
Aside from my father, he was the only person who ever called me Kenneth, not Ken.
He was never a man to avoid anything and so of course we talked about his illness and about how it had changed him. He was honest about the intense surprise of it, the shock of its virulence and how regularly it frightened him.
He assumed no special insights. He had not reached some plateau of understanding through suffering. He was living day to day, often unhappily, sometimes beautifully, as if it might be his last. Hence the chateaubriand and the wine – why not? – and he was full of genuine wonder and profound gratitude for those who had nursed him.
He was also clear that he had not gone through this alone. He said that his wife, Eva, of whom he spoke in awed tones, was (in his view) the reason that he was still alive. And his gratitude was intense and moving.
The beef was wondrous and we ate it slowly. Quietly. We savoured the wine in large glasses and enjoyed long, companionable pauses.
We talked about future projects together. In this quiet atmosphere I felt able to say what an amazing gift his writing was. To thank him for the many lives he had helped change. For continuing, as an artist, to live a big life, an inspiring life.
Instead of pudding, we decided to take a walk out of the hotel. Get some air after all that rich food. Although a quiet snow was now falling on the harbour, Henning wanted to see the boats. He teased me about my insisting on his being properly wrapped up against the cold. We didn’t walk far but there were few people on the street, and it was charming and eerie to see the small fleet huddled against the harbour walls and the ocean stretching beyond.
After a short while, I suggested we turn back. He said: “No, I’ll stay for a little while, you can leave me here.”
I gave him a hug; we said we’d talk soon, and that after Wallander was complete we’d be working together once more. And soon.
I looked back from the exit to the edge of the harbour. He was still staring at the boats and the sea, with the snow gently dusting his shoulders. He turned around and saw me watching. He waved.
“Good night Kenneth. It was good to have the dish for two!”
It surely was. Thank you.