Kenneth Branagh Brings Swedish Detective Kurt Wallander Back to American TV

Philadelphia Enquirer, 2 October 2010
By John Timpane

Kurt Wallander slouches back to American TV Sunday, looking like he hasn't slept - and may never sleep again.

For the next three Sundays at 9 p.m., Masterpiece Mystery! will show "Wallander II," three new installments of the adventures of the rumpled, agonized police detective based in Ystad, Sweden. In the first, "Faceless Killers," Wallander faces greed, racism and revenge. For starters.

Kenneth Branagh - who also is one of the executive producers - returns in his Emmy-nominated, British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award-winning role as Wallander, from the celebrated novels by Swedish master Henning Mankell. Branagh was stunning in the first three installments (which debuted on U.S. TV in 2009): paunchy, pale, unshaven, groping through psychological and moral obscurities to catch murderers and terrorists.

At an Aug. 4 gathering of TV critics, Branagh summed up the feel of the show: "There's something about coming from those northern lands, you know. It's a big country, small population, the seasons and the weather are extreme, and the possibility for looking inward into the interior life is great."

Like Mankell's novels, the show rides the dark wave of "Nordic noir" cresting on these shores - intense, intricate tales of wrongdoing and pursuit set in the isolated and isolating backdrop of the Scandinavian countries. Think of Stieg Larsson's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books, the work of Norwegians Jo Nesbų and Karin Fossum, or Icelandic noirist Arnaldur Indrišason.

The series is a coproduction of Scandinavian company Yellow Bird (also filming the Larsson books), English outfit Left Bank (producers of the acclaimed Prime Suspect series with Helen Mirren), the BBC, and PBS station WGBH in Boston.

Rebecca Eaton is executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! By phone from Boston, she stressed the collaborative aspect of the project. Mankell works closely with the writers to turn his sometimes twisty plots into TV-idiom movies.

The show is not just something Europe makes and America takes. Eaton said WGBH/PBS are "coproducers, cofinancers, and the shows wouldn't have been made without our involvement. We go over scripts together, talk about casting, and I read all versions of the script. Kenneth has worked very closely with us, down to everything including publicity - he's a very smart guy."

Masterpiece Mystery! usually tell two tales at once: that of a crime, and that of the inner lives of the people who solve it. Whether it's the alcoholic Jane Tennyson of Prime Suspect or the upper-crust Tommy Lynley of the Inspector Lynley series, Mystery! heroes tend to be, like Wallander, "loners, usually very bright, people who have been through fire," Eaton said. "They're on the edge of society - and that allows them to see and feel things about other people, and about the crimes, that the normal person wouldn't."

The inner turmoil and loner stance emerge early in Sunday's "Faceless Killers." Before entering a murder scene, Wallander breathes deep to steady himself; this is one detective horrified by violence. Later, he crosses what appears to be a street fair, totally untouched by the gaiety around him.

But Wallander, like these other heroes, lacks inner insight. At the Aug. 4 gathering, Branagh said, "He does, in the end, usually, solve [the crimes,] often rather brilliantly . . . but that emotional intelligence that he applies to it and applies to the understanding of the psychology and behavior of other people, is entirely absent in his own personal life."

What is it about Nordic noir? "A darker darkness, maybe?" said Eaton with a laugh. "There is a secret ingredient in all the mysteries we do - the setting, whether it's Miss Marple's quaint village with roses 'round the door, or Hercule Poirot's mid-1920s art deco settings. In Wallander, you have the landscape of Sweden. It has a feeling to it that suits his deeply troubled, isolated persona."

Branagh calls it "the feeling that the activities, the murder, the violence is isolated, that somewhere - to be poetic about it - that somewhere in the north there are clearer skies, fewer people . . . an atmosphere which the Swedes themselves are happy to accept as poetic and mysterious."

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