Review: Wallander 1×1

It's grim up north


In the UK: Sundays, 9pm, BBC1

As we all know, detectives need a gimmick. There’s Columbo, the working class detective; Inspector Morse, the crossword-puzzle-solving detective; Resnick, the sandwich-eating detective; Life, with the ex-con, Buddhist detective. And so on.

Wallander stars Kenneth Branagh as the eponymous Swedish detective.

Hold those words in your mind for a few seconds: Swedish detective. Think about it. Envision the stereotype.

Hey presto, you’re right. It’s Wallander the depressed detective who has so many life problems, it’s a wonder he hasn’t simply killed himself because it’s Tuesday.

What connects the suicide of a young woman and the murder of a government minister?

Is it any good?
is quite tricky to define in terms of ‘goodness’. There’s almost an automatic cancelling out of the ‘is this good?’ sense caused by the foreign location. It’s hard to tell, for example, if dialogue and performances are unnaturalistic or perfectly normal for Swedish people.

I’d ask my Swedish pal Ulrika but the conversation would probably go something like this:

Me: “Did you see Wallander?”
Ulrika: “Ha, ha. No, it’s pronounced Wallander.”
Me: “Wallander?”
Ulrika: “Ha, ha. No, Wallander.”
Me: “Wallander?”
Ulrika: “Ha, ha. No…”

For five minutes. Swedish pronunciation – very tricky. So it’s handy that despite the fact it’s filmed in Ystad in Sweden, which is where the books are set, and all the writing in newspapers, books and TV programmes is in Swedish, everyone has an English accent (despite the fact it’s a BBC Scotland commission) and it’s all in colloquial English. Otherwise, it would have been a bit laughable.

All the same, it still feels a bit odd, seeing all these Brits crawling around lovely Sweden, pretending to be Swedish without even having the good grace to do an accent like the chef off The Muppets.

And Sweden does look very lovely on Wallander. There’s the lovely countryside, full of lovely yellow flowers, and there’s that majestic coastline. Everywhere’s lit nicely, thanks to the Swedish production team. Even the police station is beautiful: it looks like the interior of Copenhagen airport rather than somewhere police-type people work.

Aside from the odd behaviours, teenagers who seem to be very wise and well behaved, etc, the story itself is pretty rubbish – albeit pleasingly unpleasant – and you’d be hard-pushed not to go “Oh, I know what’s going on here,” about half an hour in and then spend the rest of it waiting for Wallander to catch up, in between bouts of his crying, etc.

Because he has so much to be miserable about, despite the lovely Swedish countryside. His wife’s left him, his daughter hates him, his dad’s got Alzheimer’s, a girl set fire to herself in front of him just a few minutes after the story started. And Wallander spends most of the time musing on that in a very depressive way.

Which I loved. We need more shows like this. Thrillingly, there’s even more misery to come.

I’m not sure it’s what you’d call enjoyable and Branagh seems to be going for ‘rumpled’ as a personality type – he appears to be the only actor allowed to have a personality type, though, with perhaps the exception of Wallander Senior (David Warner), with everyone else more or less acting as moving furniture.

The show’s really like the BBC’s version of Morse: a big budget travel brochure filled with a few murders and a few interesting characters, musing on the crapness of life. It’s quite compelling, although not as a murder-mystery, and worth tuning in to, just to see something different.

Just because the BBC is very bizarre, I’d also like to point out that BBC4 will be showing Swedish TV’s adaptation of the Wallander novels Before the Frost and Mastermind – which they confusingly also chose to call Wallander. The series starts on Saturday at 10pm, with the second film on Monday at 10pm. There’s also a documentary, Who is Kurt Wallander?, airing before the first episode on Saturday at 9pm.

Here’s a YouTube preview and there’s a ridiculously extensive Wikipedia article on the making of the series, if you’re interested. You can also find snippets from the Swedish series on YouTube with a simple Wallander search as well, if that floats your boat – or should that be båt?

PS I wonder what would happen if Wallander came into contact with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? Would misery and anti-misery annihilate each other?

  • I also enjoyed this, though mainly because of the gorgeous home furnishings. It did suffer slightly from (spoiler alert) “the only other well known actor is the murderer” syndrome though.

  • I also enjoyed this, though mainly because of the gorgeous home furnishings. It did suffer slightly from (spoiler alert) “the only other well known actor is the murderer” syndrome though.

  • Andrea

    I do like Branagh but this just made ME depressed. And I wonder how anyone could become such a top cop without having toughened up to at least some extent. Surely a policeman of his age and experience had come up against distressing cases many times before? It didn’t really convince me that his ongoing personal problems combined with this one to produce such a breakdown as he gave at the end. In fact I wonder if Branagh was actually a bit too good for this and sort of acted the breakdown too well for what the plot actually was, if that makes sense?

  • Depends on how much crime there is in Ystad, I guess, and this isn’t the first of the Wallander books, I don’t think, so he could have been on the downward slide for some time.

  • Chris

    I have the full set of DVDs with Krister Henriksson in the lead role (they come with English subtitles, whereas only a couple of those starring Rolf Lassgård do) and I think they’re far better than Branagh’s. Not decrying his acting – he’s obviously very good – but it was incredibly slow for the first third. While the scenery is beautiful (we took holidays in Skane earlier this year), and well filmed, you see little of Ystad itself (whereas it features extensively in the Henriksson version), and the mispronunciations of names really grated. The dialogue seemed stilted, and gave no sense of Swedishness.

  • After some stuttering problems with Virgin Media’s ‘Catch Up’ service (works when it feels like) we ended up watching Wallander 1 on the laptop and then Wallander 2 on the TV.
    I thought they were both rather good – slow but thoughtful, good and grim and grisly. Still, I’d certainly like to look up the Krister Henriksson versions…

  • Anonymous

    Wallander is brilliant and Branagh is such a good actor. Great stories, scenery, and atmosphere. Please bring it back after the third episode.

  • Here is what I said earlier about Wallander. There are more blog posts about the series if you go back in time. (That’s without turning into Doctor Who.)
    The BBC have done a good job, but it’s very British, apart from the landscape. And don’t get me started on the pronunciation! It’s almost as hard to understand what names they have mangled as it is to mistreat the names of Ikea products. Imagine being Swedish and not being able to guess how to pronounce the names “in English”.

  • FlowersGrl

    Its an awesome TV series. If you enjoy mysterys this is one you should not skimp out on. The score, the cinematography, the actors, set design, costumes, are all basically top notch. Its got several twists and turns and keeps your mind racing. Love it!