Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander Leads Brooding Scandinavian Sleuths

Chicago Sun Times, 6 September 2012
By Lori Rackl

One of television’s hottest trends comes from the cold climes of Scandinavia.

Dark, tautly plotted crime dramas featuring damaged, often brooding characters in vividly moody settings — a genre loosely defined as Nordic noir — have become part of the cultural zeitgeist. The demand for Scandi dramas is on the rise, with several U.S. adaptations of across-the-pond hits in the works.

“It seems to have caught on across the world,” said actor and director Kenneth Branagh, who stars in one of the first TV shows to ignite the spark.

Branagh plays a melancholy Swedish detective in “Wallander,” which starts its third season Sunday on WTTW-Channel 11’s Masterpiece Mystery. Based on Swedish author Henning Mankell’s novels, the English version of the series debuted on BBC in 2008 and Stateside on PBS the following year.

The recently knighted Branagh does a brilliant job as Inspector Kurt Wallander, a pensive, lonely, tenacious cop deeply affected by the brutality he encounters in his seaside hometown of Ystad on the southern tip of Sweden, where the series is filmed. Branagh’s Wallander speaks the Queen’s English with nary a trace of a Swedish accent. Blame the Muppets.

“I wasn’t entirely confident about my ability to sidestep the Swedish chef,” Branagh said, referring to the moustached, meatball-making puppet. “That’s not how Swedish people speak, but that comic exaggeration has some currency out in the world. I certainly didn’t want Wallander to sound that way.”

Nordic noir is about as far away from the Muppets as you can get. A murky, haunting realism infuses these addictive shows with their instantly recognizable tone. Like others in the genre, the landscape in “Wallander” is often stark and somewhat gloomy, evocative of the characters’ inner angst and turmoil. (The U.S. version of Denmark’s “The Killing” made the most of Seattle’s rainy environs.)

“There’s something about Scandinavia, about the space that it offers,” said Branagh, who also executive produces the series. “Underneath that placid, open landscape there’s this ferocious intensity.

“Characters like Wallander have a chance to meditate in a very concentrated way on crime and death and big themes because nothing else is in the way,” he added. “It gives some new character to familiar stories.”

The late Stieg Larsson’s popular Millennium trilogy, including the thrillingly disturbing "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", helped whet Americans’ appetite for Nordic noir. And the international success of similar Scandinavian crime dramas on the small screen has sent U.S. television networks into me-too mode.

The Danish hit “Forbrydelsen” was Americanized in 2011 into “The Killing,” which capped off a two-season run on AMC this year. It reportedly could get resurrected for a third season by either Netflix or DirecTV.

“Forbrydelsen” producers have another hit on their hands with their much-lauded political drama “Borgen” (“The Castle”). It chronicles a fictional female prime minister’s rise to power and how that power changes her. (With the exception of “Wallander,” many of the Nordic noir shows focus on women protagonists.)

“Borgen’s” first two seasons aired in this country — complete with English subtitles — on the cable-satellite network Link TV. NBC reportedly might pick up an American remake from the “Friday Night Lights” team of David Hudgins and Jason Katims.

At a television critics gathering in Beverly Hills this summer, FX execs announced they’ve ordered a pilot for “The Bridge,” based on a European series about a murder investigation led by Danish and Swedish police. Both countries’ cops have to work together after a dead body is found on the bridge connecting their nations. The American version is supposed to be set at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Another basic cable network, A&E, has secured the rights for “Those Who Kill,” modeled after a Danish series about a police unit specializing in serial killers.

While it would seem that audiences can’t get enough of Nordic noir, Branagh can only take so much when it comes to playing the intense, depressed Swedish detective Wallander. Each season consists of only three 90-minute episodes, but they take an emotional toll on the actor.

“On the last day of shooting, I feel like I want to dye my hair pink and take all my clothes off,” he said. “They say, ‘Cut,’ and I run and shave. I try immediately to shake that man out of my hair.”

That’s not to say he wants “Wallander” to end, although that’s a strong possibility. If there’s a fourth season (and that’s likely), plans call for those three shows to be based on Mankell’s 'The White Lioness' and the final novel in the Wallander series, 'The Troubled Man'.

“Henning Mankell said recently that he enjoyed this [TV] series so much it made him want to write some more,” Branagh said, adding that anyone who’s read 'The Troubled Man' knows what challenges that might present. “We’ll see, but I hope that there are more to come.”

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