Kenneth Branagh: The Stunning, Troubled World of the 'Norse Morse'
Kenneth Branagh stars in a new BBC adaptation of the Kurt Wallander Swedish detective stories. James Rampton reports
The Daily Telegraph, 31 October 2008
Ystad, on the southern tip of Sweden, is the sort of quiet seaside town where a "cat stuck up tree" is front-page news. The residents are fastidiously polite, brightly-coloured yachts bob peacefully in the harbour, old couples potter along the seafront, and an unusually high tide is the source of fevered conversation in the bars.
But in the bestselling detective fiction of Henning Mankell, there is mayhem beneath the town's tranquil fašade, and a crime rate to match south-central Los Angeles. There is only one man standing between Ystad and total anarchy: detective Kurt Wallander, "the Norse Morse".
The BBC has wasted no time in snapping up the rights to Mankell's novels and turning them into a gripping series, starring Kenneth Branagh in the title role.
Branagh brings real depth to the character, a troubled man profoundly affected by the crimes he witnesses. They seem to worm their way into his soul. Afflicted by diabetes, separated from his wife and struggling with dysfunctional relationships with his father and daughter, Wallander dreams of escape - "I could get a smallholding; carrots, maybe a couple of pigs" - but you know that he never will. He is repelled by the crimes he investigates, but nevertheless feels compelled to solve them. He is marooned in Ystad by his own sense of honour.
When I arrive in Ystad, the 60-year-old Mankell is on set. He has come to take a look at how the BBC is interpreting his novels - and he likes what he sees, not least the casting of Branagh, whom he met through his wife Eva, the daughter of Ingmar Bergman.
"I have seen some of the footage and I'm enormously impressed," he says. "As soon as Ken [Branagh] told me his ideas about the drama, I was very happy. I knew he was going to go in his own direction, and that really pleased me. It always makes an author happy to be told something new about what he's written."
The books, which go under the umbrella title of The Kurt Wallander Mysteries, are a global phenomenon, selling 25 million copies. Mankell still remembers the first time he realised that his work had struck a universal chord.
"Fourteen years ago, we had a referendum in Sweden about joining the European Union," he says. "I was walking down the street in Stockholm, and a man in his sixties came up to me and asked very politely, 'I would like to know whether Mr Wallander will vote yes or no to our participation in the European Union.' I replied, 'He'll vote in the opposite way to me!' That was the moment I grasped the enormity of the character. People had started to look upon him as a believable human being."
Branagh agrees. "People really identify with him," he says. "Henning told me that after he'd written three Wallander books, he spoke to close friend who was a doctor. He said, 'I want to give Wallander another problem. What would be suitable for a man at his time of life?' The doctor immediately replied, 'diabetes'. So Henning gave the character diabetes, and he immediately became more popular."
Tom Hiddleston, who plays Wallander's young colleague, Detective Martinsson, and is also currently appearing opposite Branagh on stage in Chekhov's 'Ivanov', believes that Wallander is very different from your run-of-the-mill British cop drama.
"This is not just a whodunnit, it's a whydunnit," he says. "It's getting inside Wallander's head and seeing how the horror affects his psyche. The serial killers are getting younger and the crimes are getting more and more macabre. What's happening to the world when killers are scalping ministers of justice? What's that about?"
The stories gain added piquancy from the fact that these heinous crimes are being committed in Sweden, for so long considered a beacon of enlightened liberalism.
"Sweden has laid itself out as a very open society where the ideal of the common good is something to be cherished," says Branagh. "When that is abused and spoilt by the loss of human life, it's particularly poignant."
The other element that distinguishes Wallander from, say, 'Waking the Dead', is the stunning backdrop. Ystad plays a huge role in Wallander - it's as important as Oxford was to Inspector Morse.
"Sweden is a massive character in this drama," says Sarah Smart, who plays Wallander's sidekick. "It looks so different from anything back home. It's very stark, and all the colours are bleached. The style is retro. Everything is a bit wonky and quirky."
The actress, who played a bus driver in ITV's 'Jane Hall', adds: "This place seems completely cut off from the rest of Europe. It's eerie and remote. You could easily imagine people getting away with murder and hiding the bodies in the nooks and crannies round here."
Readers and television audiences seem to have an insatiable appetite for detective dramas. Perhaps that desire is hard-wired into our DNA.
"It's certainly one of the oldest story-telling traditions," says Mankell. "It was not invented by Edgar Allan Poe, but by the Greeks. Go back 2,500 years and look at Medea. That's about a woman who murders her two children as revenge against her husband, who has betrayed her and left her for another woman. If that's not a crime story, I don't know what is."
Wallander starts on BBC1 on Sunday November 23 [update: November 30].