Wallander, Series III

Wallander, Series III, debuts tonight on PBS as part of the network's Masterpiece! Mystery series. It will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain, in most markets, but you should check local listings.

The chief criticism of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is what made him perhaps the only choice to play Kurt Wallander, Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell’s beloved detective, in the ongoing BBC mystery series. While some got tired of seeing the Melancholy Dane get all wet-eyed during literally every speech in a four-hour movie, that hair-trigger dewiness worked well for his interpretation of that character. Branagh’s facility with the world-weary waterworks is similarly well-suited to playing who is perhaps the most depressed copper the world has ever known. Stalking the Swedish streets and fields with a perpetual two-day growth and a rumpled soul, Branagh’s Wallander has seen it all, solved it all, and then seen it come back again (only worse this time), processing his investigations through decades of sad, sordid experience both professional and personal. And yet he carries on. His dogged pursuit of justice in the face of a gloomy Sweden rife, as all police procedural series must be, with shamefully hidden secrets and inexplicable violence, makes him Scandinavia’s Saint Detective, persevering despite his pain. Like all saints, he’s got his demons to wrestle, but, appropriately, those faults are all about the work. Wallander drinks himself to sleep, occasionally disobeys obstructive orders (almost always to disastrous result), and brings the effects of his investigations home with him, but just because he cares so much! If he gets a little misty from time to time, well, he’s entitled.

As the third season (made up, as ever, of three feature-length episodes) premieres tonight on PBS, with Wallander III: An Event In Autumn, Branagh’s Wallander is happy. Or as happy as he gets. Having just purchased a modest but homey cottage in the country, he’s setting up house with Saskia Reeves’ warm but wary single mom (introduced in season two’s concluding episode The Fifth Woman). There’s a warm cuppa, a rambunctious kid, and even a new dog. But then his mobile rings its incongruously chirpy little song, and before his boxes are even unpacked, he’s off to the seaside to examine the propeller-chopped remains of the young woman we saw plunge off the side of a ferry in the pre-title sequence. Oh, and then he finds a skeleton in his new garden. Yup, Wallander’s home all right.

“Policemen aren’t supposed to believe in coincidences,” says Wallander later in the investigation, and that same maxim is even more true for mystery writers. Coincidences might happen all the time in real life, but mystery readers or watchers get tetchy if a case gets solved due to one, and Wallander’s episodes usually follow a familiar pattern. There is a pre-credits crime. Wallander discovers a seemingly unrelated crime while solving the first one. Wallander discovers that the two crimes are connected. That’s not a criticism necessarily. Mystery writers from Chandler to Chesterton used that template for a reason. It’s the details that make all the difference, and Wallander has enough unique elements to render the conventions inoffensive for the most part.

While the casting remains stoutly British, the series’ location filming lends the proceedings a very specific atmosphere. Wallander’s Ystad is a resolutely foreboding place, and its effect on the character’s psyche isn’t hard to see. Even high noon in Wallander’s world seems suffused with encroaching shadows, and the most beautiful landscapes are photographed to emphasize their stark loneliness. And while I never clamor for more storylines about the personal lives of Wallander’s colleagues or the women in his life who just don’t understand how important the work is!, at least the series’ actresses (especially Reeves, Jeany Spark as the detective’s estranged daughter, and Sarah Smart as his pertly competent junior partner) enliven their under-imagined roles when they get a chance.

But it’s Wallander himself we’re here to see, and watching Branagh’s work three seasons in lets the audience see a confident veteran actor find dramatic equilibrium in a character that, in lesser hands, could quickly become insufferable. When Wallander spots a now-dead girl on surveillance footage early in An Event In Autumn, Branagh’s reading of the simple line, “There she is” exemplifies everything I admire about the performance. Filled with empathy and tired sorrow, the “she” he sees is just another dead girl in the long, long line of dead girls he’s identified, but this one gets her due: Wallander speaks about this “she” with just enough respect and sadness in contrast to the crisp, businesslike policemens’ voices all around him.

It’s a delicate balancing act that Branagh pulls off. Too much, and he’s a drippy caricature of the bleeding heart. But in his capable hands, Wallander’s weltschmerz remains affecting rather than affected. And as the cases progress, revealing the traditional swamp of unsavory secrets and loathsome characters, we eventually see Wallander’s empathy for the victims harden into some seriously righteous anger, a transformation that brings one of Branagh’s other signature Shakespearean strengths into play, as Wallander’s fury, when finally unleashed on some sneering baddie or equivocating witness, can shake the clouds as well as Lear’s. (And I can’t wait for Branagh’s inevitable Lear, by the way). As a bonus, this episode boasts one masterfully directed action scene in a junkyard which ends with the most terrifying act of violence in all of Wallander.

This season’s three episodes maintain the series’ reliably entertaining standards, with only the middle entry The Dogs Of Riga (premiering September 16) lagging a bit behind, due to some uninspired plotting at the climax and an ill-advised trip abroad. When a pair of grotesquely murdered gangsters found on a raft at sea brings a Latvian detective (Soren Malling) seemingly determined to out-grim and out-guilt Wallander, our hero heads to Latvia (where the color palette is gloomily familiar but with the added somber tones of police corruption) and finds himself embroiled in intrigue and culture shock, with a willowy widow to save. His headstrong quest for the truth leads him to do some ill-advised things, dramatically speaking, as he throws himself into a very precarious situation, and the audience keeps waiting for him to reveal a much better plan than he has. While there’s a nicely palpable sense of evil throughout, The Dogs Of Riga, feels rather ordinary, like when Jane Tennison went to Bosnia in Prime Suspect 6. Out of its element, the show loses some of its unique charms.

The season finale, Before the Frost (September 23), edges An Event In Autumn for the best of the entire series. After an unexpectedly shocking opening scene, a plot involving religious fundamentalists, Kurt’s embittered daughter Linda, and Linda’s childhood friend comes together in an exciting, grimly satisfying way. Branagh’s confidently in control of his instrument by this point, and some especially skillful direction by Charles Martin (see the unnerving use of Wallander’s motion sensor lights for one example) concludes series three with dark aplomb. And, as in the beginning of the season, Wallander is given a precarious but welcome happy moment to end his story... at least until the next time that damned phone rings.

Stray observations:

  • As Wallander, Branagh’s face is an engagingly filled out landscape of pouches, sags, and stubble. In some shots, he looks very much like his longtime colleague and mentor Derek Jacobi.
  • Apparently Ystad and the surrounding countryside have seen a tourist boom, thanks to the Wallander books and series, because who doesn’t have the vacation fantasy of finding a decomposing body on your walk through the gloom?
  • While the father son scenes often felt egregiously depressing at times, I miss good old David Warner’s Povel.
  • Tom Hiddleston’s antagonistic cop Magnus isn’t around anymore, either, since Branagh promoted him from junior detective to Norse god.
  • Is that ringtone a standard Scandinavian feature? Wallander jokes about changing it at one point, but that sound just keeps coming, like Death’s own xylophone bird.
  • Salted cabbage juice? I’d rather have a hangover.
  • Two of this season’s episodes seem on the verge of indicting much larger groups (the Latvian government and evangelicals, respectively) before pulling back to scapegoat a more radical fringe element. Societal norms remain sound.
  • As one awful thing after another tries Wallander’s Job-like tolerance, Branagh’s expressions remind me of the scene in Henry V where, just after making a would-be reassuring speech about his ragged army’s fate being in God’s hands, there’s a rumble of thunder, and then an immediate soak of rain. Cue the most understated slow burn since Edgar Kennedy.
  • Wallander’s beleaguered weariness at each successive crisis attains a certain meta-quality after a while. Like Branagh the actor is layering exhaustion at the most predictable cop show tropes over Wallander’s reaction to the events themselves. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many cop shows.
  • As a detective, Wallander’s no Sherlock Holmes, but he gets by, mostly through quiet attention to detail and un-deterrable intuition. Plus, he seems to always find the vital clue the second time he visits a crime scene alone.
  • Hmmm... how to make Wallander’s world a just a little more dark and horrible? I know! Let’s burn some swans!
  • Wallander’s not a religious man. When someone mentions the book of Revelations, he has to be prompted to look to the back of the Bible.
  • As with most popular Scandinavian crime fiction, the moral seems to be: Don’t be female in Scandinavia if you can help it.
  • Readers: How does the BBC version compare to the Swedish series, and the books? Discuss...