Wallander: Nordic Noir, Minus the Stieg Larsson Melodrama

The Globe and Mail, 9 September 2012
By John Doyle

On the cusp of a network-TV season filled with new and returning dramas – all high-octane, high-concept, and often empty of everything except by-rote plotting – some truly great TV returns on PBS.

'Masterpiece Mystery!: Wallander III' brings back Kenneth Branagh as Swedish detective Kurt Wallander in new adaptations of the popular novels by Henning Mankell. And, as ever, Branagh is great.

He was a little younger than the Wallander in the books when these adaptations arrived a few years ago, but Branagh has become the definitive Wallander now – brooding, laconic and deadpan. Beautifully crafted, visually arresting, the adaptations capture the cold, despairing heart of Mankell’s novels – the weary cop asking the eternal question, “What kind of world are we living in?”

In the first drama, 'An Event in Autumn', Wallander appears to have found some solace and peace. He’s in a new home with girlfriend Vanja (Saskia Reeves), and is looking forward to life rather than looking back in sorrow and regret. Then, a body turns up, too close to home to ignore. Soon, he’s brooding again. And Vanja is concerned. He says this: “I’ve seen three dead girls in the last week. I don’t think you can do what I do and not end up like this.”

Imbued with both reticence and gravity, Branagh’s Wallander is compelling because he’s simultaneously decent and terribly flawed. His brooding self-absorption drives others away, even his daughter. And yet he tries to be caring. It’s just that his pessimism turns out to be the appropriate stance in a place and a society where terrible things can happen to the innocent. Wallander is depressed, a man who takes personal and professional slights too seriously, and the actor gives him the ideal level of vulnerability without milking pity for him.

As usual, there are three dramas in this season, and what happens in the first has echoes and ripples in the other two stories. We see Wallander smile, but smile in a way that suggests his facial muscles aren’t used to the expression. And, as he becomes obsessed with the crime at hand, he puts those close to him in the sort of danger that might make forgiveness impossible. As ever, the productions are wonderfully cast with skilled, experienced British actors. Reeves is great, as is Lindsay Duncan (Rome).

There is rarely a hint of melodrama in these adaptations. Even when a criminal is loose, there are police on the chase and you know there will be a twist in the tale before it ends. There is, of course, a temptation to classify the Wallander books and adaptations as part of a trend toward what’s being called Nordic noir – the popular Stieg Larsson novels and movie versions, and the American adaptation of the Danish TV series 'The Killing'. But the Wallander TV dramas remain separate, thanks to Branagh’s extraordinary exploration of the character.

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