Crumpled Hero

Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December 2009
By Scott Ellis
*Thanks, Jude

Detective Kurt Wallander is a rare cop, one who truly believes he is doing right and who has devoted his life to the fight for justice. When a teenage girl pours petrol on herself and goes up in flames rather than talk with him, he knows there is justice going wanting.

So begins 'Sidetracked', the first of the excellent Wallander mysteries finally brought to commercial screens.

From the still-smoking field where the girl died, the dour detective (played by Kenneth Branagh) sets out to learn what would drive her to kill herself. He's also investigating the axe-murder and scalping of a local politician. As he chases clues, a second, third and fourth body are found, all mutilated in the same way. The deaths are connected, Wallander knows, but how? And are the dead men somehow responsible for the girl's suicide?

A British remake of the Swedish television series (screened here on SBS), itself based on the best-selling novels of Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, these taut thrillers are among the best in the genre.

Wallander separated but still wearing his wedding ring, the father of a young girl who loves him while hating his work and the son of a man entering dementia who paints the same landscape scene over and over is one of the most conflicted heroes created. And Branagh brings him to life superbly. Crumpled, caring and vulnerable, he is also a hardened murder detective who will stop at nothing to get to the truth.

It's hard to remember the last time a detective took pity on a new colleague falling apart at his first crime scene, who actually cries when confronted with the brutality of his work and yet pulls his gun when the time is right.

Filmed in Sweden (yes, Wallander drives a Volvo), the landscape is just alien enough to give everything a slightly off-kilter look. Even the music and lighting combine brilliantly to create an air of menace that can turn a field of flowers into one of the most sinister scenes imaginable. And above all are Mankell's marvellously twisted stories.

The solution to this mystery is as much a surprise to us as it is to Wallander and as morally challenging. What does a cop devoted to justice do when faced with a killer who might be the biggest victim? A must for fans of crime cinema or anyone keen to see what a great actor, working with a great story, can do.

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