Tram wires cross Melbourne skies
Cut my red heart in two
My knuckles bleed down Johnston street
On a door that shouldn't be in front of me
(from Wallander's title theme)
Wallander (2008-present) is a superb crime/mystery series, far above nearly everything that's come along since Inspector Morse ended a dozen years ago. Like John Shaw's unforgettable character, Kenneth Branagh's existential Swedish Police Inspector Kurt Wallander is an unhappy, troubled man, and like Morse, Wallander's episodes really aren't about the mysteries except insofar as their particulars reflect upon him. He's in almost every scene, completely dominating the narratives. Where Morse was merely lonely and socially isolated by his tastes and intellectual pursuits (among other things), Wallander is a genuinely, deeply depressed individual who, like many, suppresses severe mental illness with a mountain of work that indirectly only contributes to his depression, like an alcoholic working as a taster at a distillery. It's a tempting oversimplification to call Wallander a British mystery series by way of Ingmar Bergman, but it really does share a great many of that master filmmaker's concerns, and Wallander's relationships with women, both lovers and daughters, at home and at work, is quite similar.
Adapted from Henning Mankell's crime novels, Wallander (2008-present) had already been adapted into both a film and television series in Mankell's native Sweden. The second program was apparently a big hit when BBC Four imported it, which in turn prompted this BBC-produced English-language version, with Kenneth Branagh co-producing but not directing himself, as he often has. PBS subsidiary WGBH Boston and the German company ARD Degeto co-produce the series, along with some Swedish funding, which the series filmed in and around Ystad, where the stories are set.
Seasons one and two were released to Region 1 DVD in 2009 and '10, with a Blu-ray set of the second season only released in 2010 as well. Blu-rays of all three seasons are available in Britain but, alas, there's no word on the first or third season being released on Blu anytime soon. Regardless, Wallander 3 is a two-disc set containing three 89-minute "episodes": "An Event in Autumn," "The Dogs of Riga," and "Before the Frost."
The program is better than ever and, overall, the best of the three seasons so far. Branagh and the BBC have already announced a fourth series for next year but it will be their last, as it will include a two-part adaptation of the resolutely final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man. Personally, I think the character too rich to give up after just 11 stories, as it provides the actor with the rare opportunity of aging as his multifaceted, endlessly intriguing character does. The Swedish series has shot 26 feature length adaptations to date, and there is talk of star Krister Henriksson returning for The Troubled Man there as well. I'd hate to see Branagh abandon this in order to direct Thor 2.
In "An Event in Autumn" Wallander investigates the murder of a young woman pushed off a ferry while, concurrently, he and his dog discover decade-old skeletal remains buried in the garden of the remote farmhouse where he and his girlfriend, Vanja (Saskia Reeves) now live.
In the second episode, "The Dogs of Riga," Wallander investigates the gangland-style murder of two Latvians, whose dinghy, with cocaine hidden inside it, has washed ashore. Circumspect Latvian police inspector Karlis Liepa (Søren Malling) arrives, identifying the murdered men as informants and expressing his belief that one of his superiors back in Riga, Latvia is in league with the drug smugglers. When he's murdered upon returning to Riga, Wallander travels there, determined to find his murderer.
The final episode, "Before the Frost" (the first episode of the Swedish series), concerns the investigation of a murdered elderly woman who witnessed the burning of swans by an insane pyromaniac becomes entwined with the disappearance of Wallander's daughter's childhood friend, Anna, soon after she pays a cryptic visit to his house in the middle of the night. Both eventually tie into a fundamentalist Christian group whose actions eerily echo the 2011 Norway attacks.
"The Dogs of Riga" is the most conventional and least satisfying of the three, mainly because it removes Wallander from his natural habitat, lonely and isolated rural Sweden, but it does an admirable job creating an incredibly tense portrait of a pervasively corrupt Latvia. I'll not be spending my next holiday in Riga.
All three shows but especially the first and the last are impressively unpredictable. The first episode features a violent, terrifying attack that's quite shocking and authentic in its chaos and clumsiness. The effects of this attack pervade the next two episodes, while the third focuses realistically on the strained relationship between Wallander and his estranged daughter, Linda (Jeany Spark). (Linda is the main character of the novel Before the Frost, not Kurt Wallander.)
And, as before, the series has an interesting, stark visual stylization. Filmed in high-definition, it nevertheless eschews the obvious advantages of the super-sharp format. There are no travelogue-like wide-angle pans showing viewers the beauty of rural and small town Sweden. Indeed, while there's less of the extreme narrow depth-of-field photography that dominated the first two seasons, the program effectively deglamorizes the country to where the countryside is almost post-apocalyptic. The austere art direction, populated with tasteful IKEA-like furniture, is coldly functional but little else. This harshness is carried over to the visually arresting main title design, with a bright bumblebee yellow pierced by blue triangles, the overcast skies, uninviting seashore, and even Branagh himself. Even Wallander's cell phone is grating, an obnoxious, shrill ring that sounds like a xylophone playfully running scales, as if to taunt its owner. The ring so sticks in the viewer's subconscious that it's become famous all by itself and is now available for download.
Branagh proved himself an immensely talented actor-director at an early age, though he struggled when handed more mainstream commercial offerings. I tend to like him more as a director than an actor; he's fine in the latter capacity, but I can always see the acting in his performances.
Until Wallander. The teleplays help. With their sparse dialogue nearly all of the character's complex emotions are expressed across Branagh's face and in his eyes. And, for his part, Branagh's familiar actorly tics are largely absent. He's lost himself in the character, allowing the audience to completely forget who they're watching.
Video & Audio
Wallander was filmed using Red One high-def cameras, units that reportedly approach the resolution of 35mm film, with this the first British series to shoot in the format. The results are visually arresting throughout. The shows are on a DVD5 and DVD9, with the Dolby Digital surround capturing the bleak tone well, with occasional effective bursts of noise. Optional English subtitles are available. As usual, the BBC has managed to cram ads for their shows everywhere and, also, precedes the show with their annoying, Gilliam-esque anti-copying warning. No Extra Features.
This is a great series, not to be missed. Those unfamiliar with it up to now will want to start at the beginning, with season one. Despite an absence of supplements, this series is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.