This BBC mystery series is actually a chain of films based on the novels by Swedish writer Henning Mankell featuring Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander, a middle aged man coping with the deterioration of Sweden’s utopian ideals as the country wades into the 21st Century. The Wallander novels have attained a world-wide popularity based as much on the character’s accessibility as the gripping nature of the crimes he solves.
Although many of the novels had already been adapted into Swedish films, in 2006 Mankell formed a production company called Yellow Bird for the express purpose of bringing the novels to the English speaking part of the world. Producers Anne Mensah of BBC Scotland and Andy Harries and Francis Hopkinson of Left Bank Pictures were brought in to shepherd the project. Although many distinguished British actors were considered for the series, Kenneth Branagh was a fan of the books and directly interceded the process. He met with Mankell at an Ingmar Bergman film festival and literally talked the author into hiring him to play the role. Various locations were considered for the movie including Scotland and the state of Maine in the United States, but the importance of the country the books were set in, Sweden, ultimately won out. The country is so important that it is like a co-starring character.
The first three books to be filmed were Sidetracked, Firewall, and One Step Behind, although eventually the other novels would also be filmed. This article deals exclusively with the first three movies.
Sidetracked introduces us to the character of Kurt Wallander by immediately dousing us in the beauty of a Swedish field abloom with rapeseed (a bright-yellow flowering member of the mustard family–see the photo) that dominates the camera. Wallender has been called in because a young woman is hiding in the field. He tries to approach her, declaring himself as a policeman, but she pours a can of gas over herself and sets herself afire. Wallander is appalled and perplexed. “What’s our country coming to,” he asks, “when fifteen year old girls set themselves on fire?” In this first movie we discover that he is recently separated from his wife and that his grown daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) who is deeply concerned about his lifestyle, especially his hideous eating habits and his devotion to his job that frequently leaves him burned out and exhausted. He has a very difficult relationship with his father (David Warner), but Linda eventually brings them back together and Kurt discovers that his father now has Alzheimer’s. We also meet Wallander’s co-workers, most of whom are as devoted their work as he is. Anne-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart) works most closely with him, but the group of detectives also includes Kalle Svedberg (Tom Beard) and Magnus Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston) His investigation of the self-immolation eventually leads to a former police executive who is running a forced prostitution ring, supplying young girls, many foreign, to provide as virgins to wealthy businessmen.
Firewall begins with the murder of a cab driver by two young women who calmly turn themselves in and then wallow in a fatalist state that reveals nothing of why they did it. In this movie, Linda sets up her father to participate in an internet dating site and he eventually dates the first woman to respond, but his faith that he might actually be able to start over is severely shaken by developments in the story. His investigation of the murder uncovers a plot to bring down the European banking system by way of computer hacking.
The third film, One Step Behind, is a much more personal story as Wallander investigates a serial killer who is so random that no pattern can be discerned, even though they bring in a professional profiler to help them. He forms a close bond with a girl who might lead them to the killer, but she is murdered practically before his eyes. This leads him to a much deeper love for his own daughter, Linda. He also meets a very interesting woman who seems to understand what he is going through. Ultimately, the killer becomes more daring and brings his carnage to Wallander’s front door.
The directing, under the guidance of Philip Martin, is very smart, combining both documentary and drama film techniques to bring alive the landscape of Sweden. The films capture the modern architecture and the nearly surreal beauty of the countryside by using a very lightweight, high resolution digital camera. They create a kind of stark beauty that makes the movies each stand out as a visual delight, a rare and extraordinary imagery that doesn’t just bring the stories to life, but brings the landscape front and center. The use of color in the imagery consistently keeps the viewer in a state of hyper-realism that is bold and addictive.
Branagh is perfect as Wallander, creating a character that is completely believable and engaging, so personally involved in his work that the viewer is allowed to see a fully realized person, with all of his faults as well as his good points. He is very easy to identify with and that is part of what makes the movies so special. All of the supporting actors are also well cast and believable.
If there is any fault to find with the movies, it is that the first two mysteries are pretty easy to solve and there are points where you wonder why Wallander hasn’t put it all together. In those first two films, I knew who committed the murders long before the detective did, even though the directors did not tip it off. At a certain point, I realized that even though I knew who committed the crimes, the films concentrate so well on the personal aspects, Wallander’s character, and the nature of the landscape that it just wasn’t important. The third movie, however, works both as a mystery and as a great real-life drama and it makes me eager to see more.
I confess that I’m not a great fan of crime drama or murder mystery, but Wallander goes far beyond simple genre filmmaking, into a depth of character and landscape that makes each movie very special. I look forward to seeing more of the Wallander movies in the future!