Kenneth Branagh Is Kurt Wallander

The Times, 29 November 2008
By Paul Hoggart
**Thanks Anna

The man has waded up to his shoulders into a field of rape. He watches in horror as a teenage girl pours petrol over herself, flicks on her cigarette lighter and disappears in a fireball. He is middle-aged, puffy faced and unshaven. His hair is unkempt and his clothes scruffy; his eyes are red and he seems permanently on the point of tears. Say hello to Inspector Kurt Wallander, the new detective on the TV block.

Dark Scandinavian thrillers are a seething sub-genre within crime fiction, but as an accompanying documentary, Who is Kurt Wallander?, explains, Henning Mankellís sleuth is a global phenomenon, translated into 40 languages. In Germany he outsells Harry Potter. Now he is to be our Jack "Perma"-Frost, "Ice" Bergerac or Inspector Wexfjord, investigating the Midnightsuner Murders. But is this a slice of the finest fictional gravad lax or a load of meatballs?

Kenneth Branagh, who plays the eponymous hero, says he read all nine Wallander novels in a month. Mankell got halfway through a tenth, involving child abuse, but says he found it too dark to finish. The man once tipped as "the new Olivier" has not always been our subtlest thespian. He careered through 'Mary Shelleyís Frankenstein' like a man with a box of matches exploding in his trouser pocket, and he made the primeval fern-munching in 'Walking with Dinosaurs' sound like a prime minister declaring war. Not this time, though. His performance is understated, ruminative, warm, sensitive and depressed.

Wallanderís domestic life is a shambles, because his mind seems to be constantly elsewhere, turning over the details of his cases as he tries to make small-talk over tea and rye-bread. Branagh is wonderful: intriguing, affecting and ineffably lonely. The actor describes Wallander as "living in a raw world . . . perceptive and intelligent about human behaviour". This could well turn out to be one of the finest screen roles of his career.

And Wallander threatens to do for Sweden what Maigret did for Paris or Precious Ramotswe did for Botswana. This is a serious point. If you want to get under the skin of a foreign culture, skip the guided tours of cathedrals and art galleries, and read its crime thrillers. Here you will see its darkest nightmares, though these usually turn out to be much like our own, involving serial killers, domestic violence, kidnapping, torture and corruption in high places.

For the British viewers of the 1950s and 1960s, the Maigret stories blended shabbiness with chic elegance and exposed the seedy underbelly of the legendary French sexual sophistication. Like Van der Valk in the Netherlands of the 1970s, Wallander finds wriggling worms of evil under the skin of an apparently wholesome society. But that series was inspired by the novels of an Englishman, Nicholas Freeling, and Barry Fosterís bushy blond perm made it hard to take the show seriously. Wallander is much heavier and much darker.

Branagh leads a cast of familiar British faces. David Warner is magnificent as his father Povel, a tetchy painter of gloomy landscapes. Sarah Smart brings her air of toughness and vulnerability to the part of Wallanderís underling, Anne-Britt Hoglund. 'Sidetracked', the first of the three episodes, includes fine guest turns from John McEnery, Michael Culver and Nicholas Hoult, the former lead in 'Skins' (the other adaptations are of 'Firewall' and 'One Step Behind').

Yet, despite this familiar cast, it never feels like yet another English procedural. For one thing all the notices, messages on mobiles and captions on TV screens are in Swedish. Then the interior decor is just, well, different. Itís as if their designers took a divergent evolutionary path from ours sometime back in the 1970s. And they are all so tidy. Still, the country homes may look as pretty as dollís houses, but there are skeletons in the wood sheds and trolls lurking in the birch woods.

With the unusual addition of having diabetes, Wallander ticks most of the standard TV detective boxes. Apart from the obligatory dysfunctional family life, and the inability to communicate emotionally, he sometimes drinks too much and can be an idiosyncratic and impulsive maverick, constantly wrong-footing his colleagues by rushing into danger on his own. What makes it truly distinctive is the pervasive atmosphere of Nordic gloom.

This infuses the landscapes, however beautiful, and the characters who all seem to be victims of seasonal affective disorder. Branagh has said that the "bleakish landscape and atmosphere" make Sweden "a good place for drama". Even Wallanderís mobile phone rings with an angst-ridden vibrating groan as it lies on his immaculately polished floor.

The effect is intensified by some wonderful, if chilly, cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. Moody interiors are interspersed with shots of crops shivering in the cold wind. It is, apparently, the first British film to be shot directly on to a massively capacious hard-drive with a gizmo called the Red Camera, which produces images many times sharper than normal high definition.

Devotees of Henning Mankell will doubtless spot, and perhaps be annoyed by, many liberties and divergences from the original novels, but TV adaptations should always be judged primarily as works in their own right. Mankell himself has seen the first episode and said he "liked it enormously", adding that it was right to create something completely new.

Wallander is that rare treasure: a popular form used for intelligent, thoughtful, classy drama and superbly shot. Ystad is not really Arctic. It is on roughly the same latitude as Hawick in the Scottish borders. But like Simenonís Paris or Colin Dexterís Oxford, Mankell has created a place of his own, similar to and in parallel with the real location, and it deserves to become as familiar to us all.


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