In the UK: Sunday 4th January, 9.30pm, BBC1/BBC1 HD. Available on the iPlayer
In the US: PBS probably
Remember The Fast Show? There was a character, a zookeeper, who seemed perpetually surprised by his job.
And so it is with Wallander, the detective show starring Kenneth Branagh as the miserable Kurt Wallander, in which all the detectives and even the police officers seem perpetually surprised by the fact people do bad things. Now it’s back and everyone seems just a little bit more hopeless than ever.
And I use the word ‘hopeless’ advisedly.
Wallander investigates the brutal slaying of an elderly couple at an isolated farmhouse. A police leak of the wife’s dying words leads to an outbreak of racist reprisals in Ystad. The fallout from the case leads Wallander to doubt everything, including his abilities as a police officer.
Was it any good?
Looked on as a detective story, this adaptation of The Faceless Killers is pretty hopeless. It’s a story that is basically a giant red herring for most of the episode, followed by a stupid revelation that should have been spotted within the first 20 minutes of the story if some competent police officers were at work.
Problematically, this feels like exactly what it is: a slightly poor attempt to update a slightly old (1991) book for modern times. So despite the presence of CCTV cameras in the plot, it’s relatively easy to spot that the story was written at a time when ATMs weren’t that common in Sweden, and people genuinely could forget to bring their current bank card with them so be forced to write a personal cheque in a bank for cash.
Rest assured, in modern Sweden, as with the UK, there are ATMs everywhere, cheques are accepted almost nowhere so few people carry them with them, and almost nobody will have an out of date credit card with them, no matter how disorganised they are.
Even so, it still feels like a police show that obeys the old Buckley’s Crime Show Hypothesis because absolutely no one behaves as if they have even a passing acquaintanceship with any kind of police procedure – and doesn’t think we’ll notice. Kurt goes around by himself, doing immensely stupid and dangerous things that no sane police officer would do and which are massively counter-productive to proper policing. Okay, Ken knows how to hold a gun, but does he bother to provide descriptions of potentially escaping trucks with an armed driver? No. Does he know how to conduct proper surveillance? No. Does he wait until all the innocent fairground goers leave the fairground so he can arrest some dangerous armed carnie-folk who don’t know he’s coming? No. Does he know how to question witnesses tactfully? No.
It’s also very much the Kenneth Branagh show. Very little time is devolved to characterising anyone except Branagh’s Wallander; his family get more time than others because they’re there to make him feel bad, but as a quick test, I asked my mother-in-law, who’s a keen Wallander watcher, what the name of Wallander’s police partner was. She didn’t know, and she’s seen all four episodes. Nor did she know the name of his boss or any other police officers.
Missing the point
But to a certain extent, that’s missing the point of the Ken Branagh version of Wallander. This is not a detective show in the sense of CSI, The Bill et al. As with the beautiful cinematography, direction and set design and the impeccable acting from the main cast, this is a show about mood.
Wallander isn’t intended as a police procedural. Instead, you’re supposed to feel, as with Se7en, that the world is a horrible, horrible place. This is Swedish existentialist angst, disguised as a crime show. Family is a liability or hates you, your body’s out to get you with diabetes, everyone’s a secret racist – and maybe the racists are right – and terrible crimes are committed by both terrible and normal people. The reason even police officers come running out of crime scenes saying things like, “Oh my God, you’ll never believe what’s happened inside!” is that the police are us, they’re innocents. They’re designed to break us out of our usual blasé attitude to crime and make us look at old TV tropes afresh.
People have been murdered. Horribly. That’s a bad thing that should affect you, not be entertainment, which is why Kurt Wallander is so upset by it and why he bumbles around crime scenes – he’s us, trying to solve crimes they way we would if someone suddenly thrust a badge and a gun into our hands. It’s the reason why, despite it being set in Sweden and commissioned by BBC Scotland, everyone in it is very English.
As an evocation of misery in the midst of beauty, Wallander works very well. From the progressively dementing dad to horrific crimes, it’s all geared up to make you want to slit your wrists and it does a good job of it. I even feel a little upset that Linda Wallander is such a nasty piece of work in this compared to her Swedish equivalent, but here she’s really part of the Ken-boosting background, rather than the future police officer of the books, so I’ll let her off.
I just wish that as a piece of crime fiction it at least aspired to verisimilitude and strong plotting at the same time.