Henning Mankell’s novels about Swedish small-town detective Kurt Wallander are an international hit, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Swedish movies based on the novels, so I was really interested in seeing what none other than Kenneth Branagh would do with the subject. The series started airing on PBS recently.
For those not familiar with the series, it is centered on Kurt Wallander, a tired and middle-aged detective who desperately needs to get some distance from his work—the crimes he ends up investigating are gruesome and horrific, more suited for Gomorra than a small Swedish town. Wallander’s relationship with his daughter is a constant subplot as they grapple with his less-than-stellar fatherhood record.
The Branagh version is filmed on location in Ystad—which is not pronounced with a “sh” sound no matter how many times the name gets mangled on-screen—a picturesque small town in the far south of Sweden, with an all-British cast. All the vehicles, uniforms, and printed materials are in Swedish, but all audio is in English.
Personally, I love British crime dramas—Prime Suspect, Cracker, Thin Blue Line, what have you—and I also love Swedish crime dramas like Wallander, Beck, Millenium and of course the Sjöwall/Wahlöö series, so I was quite excited to see Branagh’s take on Wallander.
And it’s a well-made British crime drama. But despite the setting, it doesn’t feel Swedish at all, so in that sense it’s a failure. All the touches that make Wallander special have been leached out, and you end up with Branagh playing the tired, dishevelled detective from central casting. Which he does very well, mind you—what with him being a gifted actor—but he doesn’t feel like Wallander. The rest of the cast, none of whom I recognized, puts in a solid performance as well.
The cinematography is a bit of problem. It’s deft but very heavy-handed. There are way too many color casts and tricks with the light—for heaven’s sake, you have the Swedish seaside summer light at your disposal, so why go all Strobist?
Top it off with a way over-used tilt-shift effect, and you have cinematography that overpowers the story. Since the story is why we’re watching Wallander in the first place, that’s kind of sad.
To sum it up, Branagh’s Wallander is a pretty good British crime drama, but Wallander it isn’t. Nevertheless, worth watching.
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