Kenneth Branagh: Wallowing in Wallander
Kenneth Branagh used to find playing Wallander so grim, he went to flower shows to cheer himself up. Vicky Frost joins the newly knighted actor in Sweden to talk about the latest series – and his plans to write a drama about his Belfast childhood during the Troubles

The Guardian, 17 June 2012

By Vicky Frost

You don't often see Kurt Wallander smiling. Frowning, yes; considering something deeply, yes; worrying away at a problem, yes – but not smiling, let alone grinning. Yet, as I watch the Swedish detective climb out of his Volvo and carry in his shopping, he is looking positively contented. Kenneth Branagh, playing the Swede, is delighted I have arrived on set in time to witness such a moment. "It's very rare!" he says after the scene has been shot. "I had to write the smile on my script so I would remember it."

The low farmhouse behind us is still being warmed by the lazy Swedish sun. This is Wallander's new home: inside are boxes full of his possessions, the detective's now-iconic leather chair, and his father's identical landscape paintings. Outside, the road stretches down to the sea, past four silhouetted trees bent almost double in the Baltic winds that whip across the landscape and cut through clothing.

Branagh is working on 'An Event in Autumn', based on a short story by Henning Mankell and the first of a trio of new Wallander mysteries about to air on the BBC. Wallander's fresh start in the countryside falls apart when the body of a young woman is found buried at the back of his garden. Then the remains of another young woman are washed up on the shore. Branagh and his wife are big fans of 'The Killing', and he recounts filming a scene at Copenhagen airport with one of its stars, Sψren Malling (Lund's sidekick, Jan, from the first series). "People's faces when they saw us!" he says.

Branagh believes it is the different pacing that attracts British audiences to Scandinavian drama, "the experience of it being as much about images as about words, where part of what you're offering is the opportunity to watch other people thinking and feeling. With Sarah Lund, we spend a lot of time watching her in repose, working it out. The mood of the story, the time of day – in her case, night-time – has a weird, magnetic compulsion."

Branagh's Wallander is both part of this phenomenon and separate from it. The show, which helped prompt BBC4's Saturday night Eurocrime slot, is not in subtitled Swedish (it's largely performed by British actors) yet the country, its preoccupations and introspections are central to the drama. Branagh refers to Wallander as "the poet detective" several times in our conversation. "We let him think and feel and take his time and be appalled," he says. "Going into it, one was in the grip of a lot of TV drama that was slick and fast-moving: wobblecam the whole time. Whereas I felt the Wallander books were long, deep broods."

Long, deep broods are quite Branagh's thing: his answers tend to be thorough and seem deeply felt; although he's not without humour, such intensity can be disconcerting. It may explain what attracted him to Mankell's novels and to Wallander himself. "I like him because he's uncompromising. I like the fact he remains relatively unambitious, relatively without vanity. For a man of a certain age, Wallander hasn't settled for anything, he hasn't given up."

I watch Branagh spend most of the day filming scenes, usually on his own and, he says, "trying to keep away from character tics. Wallander doesn't always have the mac, the opera. We're consciously keeping him more open than that." A raggle-taggle crew, in padded jackets and lined boots, hang about in the garden, as the sun slips lower. Finally a deep darkness falls as Branagh, in front of a blazing fire inside the farmhouse, mulls over the detective he has spent four years playing: a crumpled, craggy man whom the actor, off-screen at least, looks rather too neat to play.

"I cannot come back to him comfortably," he says. "It's never been, 'Oooh, I've got a nice job on the telly.' Every single time it feels like hard work – hard in that I find it difficult. In the early days, I had to do jolly things any chance I could: at the weekend wear bright clothes, go to flower shows. But now I'm better at compartmentalising, being him for the least amount of time I need to be."

Wallander is no DCI Barnaby, certainly, but the town of Ystad on Sweden's southern shores, where Mankell set his novels, does have something of Midsomer about it. In the summer, hollyhocks push between the half-timbered houses and the town feels so sleepy it almost snores. Out for dinner in the evening, we have to rush to make it before last orders, even though it is well before 9pm.

The detective is, however, anything but cosy. Branagh calls him "this strangely open individual where we see bruises occuring even as we speak". He is obsessive, self-analytical, troubled. He despairs at himself and his inability to eat properly, have proper relationships (including with his family), and be a good policeman. He also despairs at society: how people can't connect with each other, and kill each other. Branagh thinks the Swedish outlook – where such qualities don't have "the perjorative connotations of self-indulgence" they might have in Britain – is the key to Wallander. It all makes him fascinating to watch, even if you might not want to hang about with him.

Branagh is also an executive producer of the Wallander films, which have sold to numerous countries around the world – including Sweden. So will there be more after this? "We've been talking of doing 'The Troubled Man' [Mankell's recent and final Wallander mystery] in two parts, maybe with 'The White Lioness' as well. That might provide a strong arc over what would probably be the final three English Wallanders. That would be my instinct."

A TV detective might have seemed an odd choice for an actor regarded in some quarters as the next Olivier – and who was recently Oscar-nominated for playing him in 'My Week With Marilyn'. Yet, as his foray into blockbusters suggests (he directed last summer's 3D popcorn flick 'Thor', with some critical as well as commercial success), Branagh appears entirely unbothered by what people think he should be doing.

He has been developing Mankell's non-detective novel 'Italian Shoes', about a once-successful surgeon in self-imposed exile on a Swedish island, for a couple of years now, with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role; after we meet, the movie is confirmed, with Judi Dench already cast. But his latest thought is to write a loosely autobiographical drama about the Belfast he grew up in during the 1960s, at the beginning of the Troubles. "What's always appealed to me was to tell a story about my own experience: a generational thing about my time in Belfast, a particular slice of dockside, working-class, Protestant life. I have an almost photographic recall of seeing Bernadette Devlin [the republican activist and MP] on television in the riots, and what all of that was doing to our family and all of those around us."

Branagh is speaking before news broke of his knighthood at the weekend. He has been honoured for both his services to drama and to the community of Northern Ireland – a fact that does up the stakes for an autobiographical film. Recently back in Belfast for a play, and revisiting places that have been transformed, Branagh found himself pondering his past. "In the course of my lifetime, that world went from violence to a kind of peace. And somehow I have a feeling of all that, recollected and reflected through individual, non-political lives. All very easy to say. Now I have to write it."

'An Event in Autumn is on BBC1 on 8 July.

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