Rating 3½

Directed by Philip Martin (‘Sidetracked’ and ‘One Step Behind’) and Niall MacCormick (‘Firewall’)

Written by Richard Cottan and Richard McBrien, based on novels by Henning Mankell

Starring Kenneth Branagh (Kurt Wallander), Jeany Spark (Linda Wallander), Sadie Shimmin (Lisa Holgersson), Sarah Smart (Anne-Britt Hoglund), Tom Hiddleston (Martinsson), Tom Beard (Svedberg), Richard McCabe (Nyberg), Polly Hemingway (Gertrude) and David Warner (Povel Wallander)

Sidetracked; Kurt Wallander sees a young girl pour petrol over herself and ignite it. He is then called in to investigate a number of killings in which the victim is scalped and realises that the two things are connected.

Firewall; A teenage girl stabs a taxi driver multiple times and claims it was to rob him of money. A man is found dead in the town square, apparently having suffered a heart attack. When the young girl escapes from police custody and is later found dead and the body of the man is stolen from the morgue, Wallander realises the two are connected.

One Step Behind; When the bodies of three young people who had been reported missing are discovered in a secluded woodland, Wallander realises too late that his colleague Svedberg had tried to tell him something important and has now left clues that somehow connect him to the killings.

At the time of writing this review, there are nine Kurt Wallander crime-thriller novels written by the acclaimed Swedish author Henning Mankell, with another one due for publication in Sweden in August 2009. The first novel was published in 1991 and translated into English in 1997. Wallander is a police inspector working in Ystad, a locality on the southern tip of Sweden, near to the city of Malmö. The novels set out to shine a light on the hidden rotten core at the heart of Swedish society.

All nine novels were adapted into films in Sweden between 1994 and 2007, the first eight for the SVT television channel and the last one direct to video. Rolf Lassgård played the lead role. A further thirteen films, with Krister Henriksson in the lead role, were made in 2005 and 2006, one for theatrical release and the others released to DVD and broadcast on Swedish television. The first of these films was based on a Henning Mankell novel and the remainder were new stories, based on plots written by Mankell. A further thirteen films were commissioned in 2008.

The English-language ‘Wallander’ series was produced for BBC Scotland and broadcast on BBC1 in three feature-length weekly instalments between 30 November and 14 December 2008. ‘Sidetracked’ is based on the fifth novel ‘Villospår’, first published in 1995. ‘Firewall’ is based on ‘Brandvägg’, the eighth novel, published in 1998, and ‘One Step Behind’ is based on ‘Steget efter’, the seventh novel, published in 1997.

The three television adaptations run in this sequence – ‘Sidetracked’, ‘Firewall’ and ‘One Step Behind’ – and it is essential to continuity that ‘One Step Behind’ takes place after ‘Firewall’. However, the novel ‘Steget efter’ (‘Firewall’) was published after ‘Villospår’ (‘One Step Behind’). I am not sure why this is and having not read the novels, I do not know how far, if at all, the television adaptations deviate from the books.

The three films are really rather good and although I have not previously found Kenneth Branagh an especially interesting or watchable actor, I thought he was excellent here, even if I suspect he is not necessarily a perfect match for the character of Kurt Wallander. Branagh portrays Wallander as very world-weary. He seems obsessed by his work, but is at once both very emotionally involved in the cases he investigates and at the same disengaged from the world around him. This is explored through his relationship with his daughter Linda and we see parallels in his father Povel, an artist who is in the early stages of dementia. Wallander himself has to face the truth of it in the third story ‘One Step Behind’ when he realises that he knows next to nothing about his colleague Svedberg, even though Svedberg had described Wallander as his best friend.

It wasn’t as unrelentingly bleak as I had expected, which I actually think is to its detriment. I could not help but think throughout that it was just a little bit too slick, almost too hopeful. I found myself comparing it to ‘Jar City’, an Icelandic film based on a novel by the crime-thriller writer Arnaldur Indriðason, and in comparison it was almost like watching an episode of ‘Heartbeat’. I also had to remind myself several times that these stories were taking place in Sweden and the characters were Swedish, even though the location filming was done in Ystad and the interior sets were constructed at Ystad Studios. I felt that the geographical location sometimes rather got lost, perhaps simply because all the actors are British.

Not being particularly knowledgeable about the geography of Scandinavia, I wondered about Wallander’s apparent ability to drive from Ystad in Sweden to Copenhagen in Denmark, seemingly in a couple hours. It was only when I did some research that I discovered that Malmö has a direct link to Copenhagen/Kastrup airport via the Öresund Bridge.

The three episodes were very well received by critics and watched by an audience in excess of 5.5 million viewers. A second series, adapting three more Wallander novels, has been announced. Production is due to start sometime in 2009.

Review posted 6 June 2009


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