December 4, 2008

DOES A MYSTERY HAVE TO BE SCARY?:

Lost in translation: Authenticity wins over spontaneity in this Swedish-set detective series
Wallander BBC1 (Rachel Cooke, 04 December 2008, New Statesman)

So what of Branagh's turn as Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell's conflicted Swedish policeman? He's physically rather good, I think, with his red-rimmed eyes and his bed-head hair. He conveys Wallander's quiet disgust at the world beautifully, the distaste on his face never greater than what we might expect to find there had he just eaten an insufficiently fresh herring.

Though Wallander sometimes appears haunted - and who wouldn't be mildly upset if they'd just witnessed a girl setting fire to herself in a field of oilseed rape? - he never slips into dreary self-pity, unlike certain British TV detectives (of course, the schnapps has less effect on him, he being a Swede, than on the denizens of Scotland Yard). Branagh is good at crying - he blubbed expertly as Guy Pringle - and when Wallander does crack, he makes these scant, salty moments so believable, you share the embarrassment of those around him, lips all frozen stiff.

No, the fault here is not Branagh's. The best way I can describe Wallander (Sundays, 9pm) is that it is just one notch off being a detective-show masterpiece - only the notch in question is not something relatively unimportant, like its theme music, but something vital, which has to do with its very essence. It looks beautiful; its production values are cinematic, and, having been filmed on location in Ystad, it has a tremendous sense of place. I could swoon at the interiors, which are crammed with the kind of chic, mid-century Scandinavian furniture that people in Islington sweat blood to buy. Even the police station - sorry, the polisstation - features an excellent abstract mural.

The writing is good and minimalist, and the plotting, too, because its creators have stayed fairly true to Mankell, a fine writer (and one who has sold 30 million books in a hundred countries). The actors are all capable, and one of them - David Warner, as Kurt's father, Povel - exceptionally so. So what's the problem? Why, as our killer scalped one pervert after another, was I not fixed to my seat, peering nervously from behind a strategically placed cushion?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 4, 2008 12:07 PM
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