Wallander, Series II: Faceless Killers, The Man Who Smiled, The Fifth Woman

Wallander, Series II: Faceless Killers, The Man Who Smiled, The Fifth Woman

Wallander: Series II debuts tonight on most PBS stations as part of Masterpiece. Check local listings.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Ingmar Bergman directed "Law & Order"? The answer is Wallander: Series II (Masterpiece Mystery! on PBS), a stylish crime drama based on the novels of Swedish author Henning Mankell. Filmed on location in Ystad, Sweden, Wallander features great acting, actual suspense, and beautiful camera work -- scenes are filmed from behind doors, windows, and gates, with lots of cool-looking close-ups and odd angles. It all adds up to a conventional cop show presented in an artistic way.

Kurt Wallander (played by Kenneth Branagh) is a brilliant police inspector who can solve any crime but can't handle his own life. He's divorced, has a frayed relationship with his daughter, and a father in poor health. He falls asleep on random pieces of furniture, both inside and outside. Oh, and he's diabetic. And cranky.

There's a lot to like here. Branagh is a great actor who blends in smoothly with the other performers, something not every star is able to pull off. The rest of the cast is equally solid, with special mention going to David Warner as Povel Wallander, who is heartbreaking as Kurt's rapidly deteriorating dad. Wallander isn't light-hearted viewing, but it also isn't as intense as 24 or Law & Order: SVU. The pace of life in Sweden seems slower, and as presented here, this is a country of vast open spaces and very little in the way of crowds. Even when Wallander goes to a bar or restaurant, there are never more than one or two other people around. The cop show tropes are all there -- Kurt has a boss who respects his skills but doesn't always want to put up with his inability to function like a normal human being, a coroner who does all the creepy stuff like figuring out just how and when somebody died, a younger investigator who also respects Wallander and is even more annoyed by him, even a female inspector that looks a little bit like Jill Hennessy. There are a few clichéd moments that made me think of The Simpsons' McGarnicle -- I wouldn't have been surprised to hear Branagh say, "I'm trying to get out but they keep pulling me back in!" -- but these are few and far between. Bottom line: this is a great show that should be watched by everyone.

This is the second round of the BBC/PBS/Branagh version of Wallander (there is also a Swedish TV and film series). The fact that I missed the first three episodes didn't bother me, although I do wonder if some details would be more clear had I caught the first arc, leading to fewer moments of "wait, who's that woman taking care of Kurt's dad?" or "What are those pills he keeps taking?" With some shows, starting anywhere other than the beginning is an exercise in frustration; in this case, watching Wallander II only made me want to pick up Wallander I, and also check out Mankell's novels.

Since these are mysteries (or Mysteries!), I don't want to reveal too many details. Here are some thoughts about the full four and a half hours of Swedish crime drama goodness.

Episode 1, Faceless Killers (Airing October 3, 2010)

Mankell likes to mix politics with his crime stories. This time the issue is immigrants, specifically the Swedes' fear of foreigners. A elderly couple is murdered and Wallander hears the wife's final words. Unfortunately, since she was dying at the time, those words weren't terribly clear. Kurt tells his crime solving team that he thinks she may have said farmer, or perhaps foreigner. Could have been foreigner. (Not the band who sings "Cold as Ice" and "Jukebox Hero.") After warning everyone not to leak this information to the media, it is of course immediately leaked, and now migrant workers are being targeted by racist nutjobs. Since these stories are as much about Wallander's personal foibles as they are about crime solving, his daughter is dating a Syrian doctor -- "He's Syrian. Well, you know, Swedish, but..." -- something that bothers him, and the fact that it bothers him also bothers him. (This happens a lot. Kurt could really use a good therapist.) When Wallander wonders whether his own prejudices are hampering his ability to investigate the case, a colleague tells him that those feelings are "in all of us. It's how you deal with it that matters." (Or, to put it another way, "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist".) This is a bit heavy-handed, but it works; judging by Stieg Larsson's best-selling Millenium novels (Dragon Tattoo, et al), Sweden has a real problem with racism, and maybe they're just more open and honest about it then we are in the States. It's certainly believable and an integral part of the plot. In the end, something happens that makes Wallander so upset that he considers quitting police work.

Episode 2, The Man Who Smiled (Airing October 10, 2010)

By now we've established that Kurt Wallander feels guilty about, well, everything, but those feelings are often justified. For example, in this episode, a man dies in in a car crash, but his son suspects something is amiss and asks Wallander to dig deeper. Kurt is on leave after the events of Faceless Killers, but eventually gets pulled back ("Dammit, McGarnicle!"), seemingly by the idea that the son may be right. While he dithers at a bed and breakfast by the sea, the son dies, and Wallander blames himself. It's not exactly his fault, but he's not wrong in thinking that if he had decided to get involved sooner, the son might still be alive. This episode features a lot of close ups of eyeballs (I kept having flashbacks to watching Persona in college), and scenes like a long, lingering shot of Branagh sitting in a white room decorated with nothing but a crucifix. ("Law & Order: Ystad", Ingmar Bergman, Executive Producer.) Once he's back to work, we get to see Branagh wipe his sweaty pits on the curtains, in case the pills that he keeps washing down with glasses of wine weren't enough of a clue that the guy is a mess.

There's an "issue" here as well, but it isn't the main focus, at least not the way immigration is in Faceless Killers. PBS makes a big deal out of a guest appearance by Rupert Graves, and he was good, but not significantly better than the rest of the cast.

Episode 3, The Fifth Woman (Airing October 17, 2010)

This episode is by far the most graphic, with some seriously creepy shots of dead people, one of whom is impaled on wooden stakes. (Swedish serial killers make Jeffrey Dahmer look like Jeffrey Tambor.) Without giving too much away, the plot this time is a bit like the Swedish title of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which is Men Who Hate Women. Wallander does not in fact hate women; in his own strange way he is actually very kind to the people he encounters while investigating horrific murders.

He's also kind of like Bob Newhart and everyone else is Larry, Daryl and Daryl. He might be the most neurotic human being in Sweden, but he can solve crimes, dammit.

The dialog in The Fifth Woman is more stilted and the pacing is different. Then, in the last ten minutes, the action speeds up, there are several dramatic and emotional moments, and what at first seemed like something from a different series turns out to be a perfect ending to this three episode arc.

Stray observations (lots of them):

  • Each episode is 90 minutes long. Since I usually watch good ol' American TV, I was expecting them to be 45 minutes, which is one reason I'm writing this review at 2am. The extra time is mostly made up of artful camera angles and long lingering shots of Wallander looking for clues, or just walking back to his car. It wouldn't be too difficult to chop these parts out and make this more like a standard cop show; it wouldn't be as good, but they could do it.
  • They eat pizza in Sweden.
  • Four and a half hours and I didn't see one meatball. Nor did I see the constant cavalcade of coffee and sandwiches found in the Larsson books.
  • "Everyone's a little bit racist / Sometimes /  Doesn't mean we go / Around committing hate crimes"
  • Everybody has a country house on the water. (This is true in Larsson's novels as well.)
  • Swedish police uniforms look funny, particularly the hats.
  • The interiors are always very stylish, even the police station. Especially the police station. I know nothing about design, much less Swedish design, but there is a really cool room where Wallander works with his team of investigators, with diagonal patterns on the wall that continue onto the door. Unlike the precinct houses of every U.S. cop show from "Barney Miller" to "Homicide", this looks like a nice place to work. Except for the dead bodies, of course.
  • "I'm not interested in correctness. I'm interested in the truth, and I just don't think that now, the truth stands much of a chance."
  • Sparbanken Syd should be the name of a Swedish rapper. (It's a bank.)
  • More than once, Wallander returns to a crime scene and finds something that it seems like they should have found the first time. Also, there's never anyone there.
  • "This is a murder inquiry. I'm afraid it's what happens."
  • Is it really a good idea to carry evidence in your coat pocket?
  • In the first episode, once the racism stuff kicks in, Wallander says, "Have we checked out the right wing groups?" I was sort of hoping for a Swedish Glenn Beck-type getting the locals all riled up.
  • Wallander's cell phone has a chirpy ring tone, and seems to work everywhere.
  • "What color?" "Swedish color. Blonde."
  • Amazing shot of Branagh walking through knee-high grain fields.
  • "They didn't care. As long as he was foreign."
  • "Why can't somebody else do this?" "Because this is mine. Because it started with me. Because that's where it will end." ("Dammit, McGarnicle!")
  • "All of the law, inspector, is not in a book."
  • Wallander gets a piece of junk mail that says SISTA VARNINGEN! on the envelope.
  • A woman receives a postcard that says, "You will all die and who will profit then. You are worthless." She tells Wallander, "I kept it. Something about it felt unfinished." That line would fit into any Bergman movie.
  • Cause of death: fractured hyoid.
  • Kurt is willing to lie to people who are about to die, either to obtain information or to make them happy. When I thought about it, that kind of makes sense.
  • "A dead body's just a dead body. It's not a person, it's a corpse." "To you, maybe."
  • Crows are creepy. A flock of crows is REALLY creepy.
  • "How are you, dad?" "Useless."
  • "Of course I didn't go in. That's your job."
  • "Can you tell stuff, then? By looking 'round?"
  • "Don't you need to move some oil?"
  • "Orchid Safari" could be the name of a Vampire Weekend album.
  • The way Branagh says "Inner life?" with utter contempt, showing off teeth straight out of the Big Book of British Smiles.
  • "Dysfunctional relationships. We didn't like to call it abuse."
  • Wallander literally begs a suspect to tell him what she knows. I can't imagine an American TV cop doing that.