Having read the late Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (a ponderous Swedish whodunit filled with frozen countrysides, casual sex and endless cups of coffee) I found that as usual I had my finger on the caffeinated, Scandinavian pulse of the zeitgeist. For what did I find on BBC Four the very night I finished it but wall-to-wall Wallander – a whole slew of shows dedicated to Henning Mankell’s enormously popular police procedural novels.
To my great enjoyment, these included a couple of Swedish TV movies – with subtitles and everything! There was an ulterior motive, however. It was all a lead-in, a softening-up, to get me hooked on BBC One’s English adaptation of the books – starring Kenneth Branagh as the titular Swede.
But our Ken doesn’t really pull it off.
Branagh has always come across to me as something of a lightweight. This is curious because he aggressively pursues the meatiest, weightiest, manliest roles he can find: from Henry V to his surprise appearance at the end of the BBC’s 10 Days to War as a hardened American general who – hmm – shows up to deliver a rousing speech to his troops. Things seem to come too easily to him. Is it the blond hair? The puckish face which, despite its evidently increasing age, does not appear that ruffled by life’s slings and arrows? Whichever it is, Branagh suffers from the same curse of good looks as a host of other capable male leads. Which brings us to his new show, Wallander.
Wallander needs to be a bit ugly. Beset with diabetes, perpetually on the verge of 50, overweight, underexercised, and divorced, he’s a classic fictional detective – human in ways we can sympathize with but with a clarity of intuition that we all aspire to. In Sweden he has mainly been played by Rolf Lassgård, an authoritatively plump man who does share one distinctive feature with Brananagh, a total lack of lips. BBC Four, however, presented us with the new Swedish series, in which he’s played by Krister Henriksson*, who appears to have been following doctor’s orders. He’s slimmer now, but his pockmarked, rugged face and cavernous eye sockets tell you everything you need to know: this man has ghosts to chase away and his weapon of choice is probably whisky.
Branagh just doesn’t give you this – he scowls a lot and stomps around but underneath it there’s a fundamental cheeriness he just can’t shake.
In fact, the look of the show itself betrays an overweening concern for glossiness over the breezeblock reality of policing. It’s the first British programme to use the hot new camera “Red One” and if its light-metered-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life sheen is any indication the camera is no slouch at its job of taking pictures very fast. The police station looks like a Chanel advert, and the yellow rapeseed in the countryside practically blinded me. Everything looks lustrous and moody, including Wallander’s capacious flat, which is all thick blond planes of wood and free of clutter. A bit like Branagh himself.
* I have now read “One Step Behind”, and I was thinking of Henriksson on every page. He fits the part like a glove and I only hope that someone out there translates the Swedish films so I get a chance to watch the rest of them.