TV Review: 'Wallander' Gets a British Makeover, 1 October 2010
By David Wiegand

Wallander II: A "Masterpiece Mystery" presentation. "Faceless Killers": 9 p.m. Sun. "The Man Who Smiled": 9 p.m. Oct. 10. "The Fifth Woman": 9 p.m. Oct. 17. KQED.

For those whose knowledge of Swedish begins with "Volvo" and ends with "meatballs," British television has conveniently adapted Henning Mankell's wildly popular "Wallander" mysteries, with three new shows starting Sunday on PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery."

While many true Mankell fans prefer the older Swedish adaptions with Krister Henrikssen in the title role, the British version is entertaining and even, at times, compellingly so, as Kenneth Branagh's Detective Kurt Wallander dives into work as an alternative to not dealing with his personal life.

You know that old wives' tale of how Sweden allegedly has the highest suicide rate in the world? It doesn't, but you might actually believe otherwise as you watch "Wallander."

Sure, life has dealt Kurt more than a few bum hands: His wife left him, his daughter thinks he's an inattentive jerk most of the time, and his elderly father (David Warner in a predictably stellar performance), who is steadily disappearing into Alzheimer's disease, is profoundly disappointed in his son, regardless of whether he recognizes him or not.

Nonetheless, it gets to the point where you just want to shake Kurt by his pudgy shoulders and scream "snap out of it" as he sits paralyzed with angst in his sad little apartment.

Branagh really is terrific in the role, but the problem is that it's really hard to believe that someone so inertia-bound one moment can turn on a krona and become supercop the next. In fact, there's a scene in one of the new films where Wallander returns to the force from a stress leave and gets involved in someone else's case. Instead of just barreling in and taking over, he whines that he's just there to assist, even though we know he'll soon be not only running the show, but solving the crime.

The scene has very little credibility, but it makes you think of other films in which a detective can't even do the dishes at home, but manages to nail the culprit every time. Remember Jane Tennison and her problems with her own dad? Not to mention, the bottle? Those were real enough, but we didn't feel a flicker of disbelief when she'd pull herself together and run a crime scene like a circus ringmaster.

That isn't the case here. Instead, there are really two distinct Wallanders and while Branagh embodies both admirably, there are many moments when they just don't seem like the same guy.

The mysteries are set in the Swedish coastal town of Ystad where, in Sunday's episode, "Faceless Killers," Wallander is trying to keep racism out of the headlines as his team goes about solving the murders of an elderly couple whose farm is near a camp for migrant workers from the Middle East.

The inevitable solution feels a bit unearned, although Wallander is forced to kill one of the suspects, which sends him into an even deeper mental tailspin and prompts a leave of absence.

He comes back in "The Man Who Smiled" to barge in on the case of an elderly man who has died in a car crash and the subsequent apparent suicide of his son. This one has a more complex, but more compelling, story line than "Faceless Killers."

The best of the new episodes, however, is "The Fifth Woman" (Oct. 17) about seemingly unrelated but very brutal murders of a number of older men who were not well liked when they were alive. Not only is the plot elaborately complicated, but the episode belatedly finds exactly the right balance between Wallander's work and personal lives.

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