Kenneth Branagh: Wallander
Kenneth Branagh is back on TV to play moody cop Kurt Wallander. He talks to Serena Davies about his role, the male midlife crisis and how to cry on stage
The Telegraph, 29 November 2008
Kenneth Branagh’s been doing a lot of weeping recently. He’s been weeping nightly on stage in 'Ivanov', the Chekhov play where his performance has stunned West End audiences for the past three months. And he spends large chunks of his new BBC1 detective drama Wallander in tears, or at least with that pink-eyed look that suggests extreme lack of sleep and near physical collapse.
"What happens is you get hit by a situation where really it is impossible to evoke any other kind of reaction," he says of the crying. "It’s an imaginative response. I don’t suddenly think about terrible things in my own life or losing my parents. I don’t bring another thing in. I just put myself there."
Branagh’s had flak over the years for some of his less successful big-screen directing jobs, including a clumsy Frankenstein, and an all-singing, all-dancing version of 'Love’s Labour’s Lost' ("The whirligig of judgement continues in its own way," is his battle-hardened take on criticism). But there’s no denying he’s an outstanding actor.
His interpretation of Kurt Wallander, the troubled detective created by bestselling Swedish author Henning Mankell, dominates every scene of the gripping 90-minute adaptations the BBC has made of three of Mankell’s novels. Filmed on location in Sweden, these pieces have an alien, unnerving feel to them, thanks in part to the vast, empty landscapes in which they’re set, but also due to the intense, near-voyeuristic focus of the camera on the emotions of their hero. Sidetracked, the tale of a sex abuse ring near Ystad, the town where Wallander works, kicks them off tomorrow.
The USP of Wallander, among the glut of detective dramas on our screens, is that in each episode Wallander’s own story is more important than the nasty crimes he investigates. That story is a rocky one. He’s lonely: emotionally isolated by his work, estranged from his wife and his father has Alzheimer’s. "We expect our professionals to be enured to the loss of life – and he’s not," explains Branagh. "That certainly doesn’t make for a happy home life."
All this makes Wallander very different from what Branagh calls "a certain kind of crime drama". He won’t name these offenders, although the likes of Taggart and CSI Miami spring to mind, but he summarises the genre: "You know, suddenly there’s a crime, and three police cars zoom up and somebody in a jacket with the collar turned up is coming out and doing squinting-against-the-sun acting..."
To interview, Branagh is intense, quick-witted and guarded. He’s genial but not affable. In both Ivanov and Wallander, the 47-year-old plays middle-aged men experiencing midlife crises. As I point this out to him he picks up on a phrase. "Middle aged?" There’s an ever-so-slightly awkward pause, before he laughs. "No, of course that’s me."
"Though, I certainly don’t feel in the grip of a midlife crisis myself," he goes on. "I feel as interested in being a human being both in the banal versions of it – how do I pay my bills more efficiently, I’m less of an ‘eejit’ when it comes to all that – and what’s important and what makes you happy."
The Belfast-born Branagh’s now five years into his second marriage, to the art director Lindsay Brunnock. It's been a less publicly fraught union than the actor’s first, to Emma Thompson – Thompson was vociferous about her husband’s infidelities.
Brunnock and Branagh became close when they worked together on 2002’s 'Shackleton', his last major project for television, on the great explorer. 'Shackleton' won a Bafta for best serial (and Branagh a nomination), and it was a well funded project, costing a rumoured £10 million. Branagh’s touch has been sure when cherry-picking what television he gets involved in. His first ever job was a part in the BBC’s prestigious series 'Play for Today' and soon after, in 1987, came 'Fortunes of War', the excellent Second World War serial in which he co-starred with Thompson.
Branagh, however, doesn’t think the BBC could afford 'Fortunes of War' now. The series was made on location in Bucharest, Cairo and Athens among other places.
"'Fortunes of War' would not be commissioned as easily or directly now," he says. "It was nine months of shooting for six hours of TV. But there was more money then, and less pressure on casting. The fragmentation of the TV system now means that the financing of such things doesn’t happen in the context of predictable audience share. Back in ’87 they knew what kind of audience they could command on a Sunday night."
Still, notwithstanding the nostalgia with which he speaks about 'Fortunes of War', Branagh cites Wallander as the highlight of his television work so far, because he’s been involved with it since its inception, and helped create its eerie Swedish style. He’s a great Mankell fan too. In fact, the actor seems, despite the professional tears, to be on a high at the moment. "It’s delightful to be in a play that’s working well. And I’m proud to be in these programmes," he says. Then he suddenly comes over as a man half his age: "Listen I’m very happy. I’m a happy boy," he smiles. It seems that for a moment the guard drops, but perhaps it’s only acting.