Wallander - review

The Killing murdered the Scandi detective drama.


Wallander is on his own again. In the first episode of the new series (Sundays, 9pm), we saw him arrive in the country for a fresh start with his super-tolerant girlfriend, Vanja (Saskia Reeves), her son, Peter, and their black labrador. But for Kurt there is no such thing as a fresh start. Trouble sticks to him like goosegrass to corduroy trousers.

It wasn’t long before a body had been found beneath some blackcurrant bushes at the end of his new garden. He had to investigate; the bodies began piling up; the old, haunted look returned to his face; he kept forgetting to ring home; Vanja got mighty pissed off. At the end of the episode, they went for relationship counselling. The therapist had placed a couple of flickering tea lights on top of her mid-century Scandi coffee table. No wonder Wallander suddenly looked like a man who was suffering from a bad case of piles.

So now Vanja has gone, we know not where. Wallander remains in the country but since he’s almost never home, we don’t get to see much of this (a shame, because Vanja has left him some truly covetable furniture). In epi-sode two, he was mostly in Riga, investigating the death of a Latvian cop who’d met a sticky end, courtesy of a drug gang. At least, I think it was a drug gang. To be honest, I was finding it hard to concentrate. The cop in question was played by Søren Malling, better known to fans of The Killing as Jan Meyer, Sarah Lund’s first partner – a bit of casting that only served to remind one that The Killing has pretty much murdered Wallander.

The Killing was exciting, complex, richly textured and occasionally surreal. Wallander, for all that it looks beautiful – although I’m wearying of the sight of clouds of birds scattering from burnt-toast fields into dishcloth skies – is a nearer relative of Inspector Morse. It seems so slow, so old-fashioned. Its herrings are so intensely scarlet, you can see them out of the corner of one eye (I know this because, as I watched, I was also trying to find, on eBay, a light shade like the one in Wallander’s kitchen). Its baddies are so sinisterly obvious, you might as well be watching Scooby-Doo.

I’m still baffled by the way its actors speak. Everyone talks in this flat, slightly careful way, almost as if English were not their first language. Is this to remind us that the characters are Swedish? I suppose it must be.

No one ever sounds urgent, or distressed, or even angry, which is pretty odd, given that around them people are being strangled, raped and, in the case of the Latvians, having their tongues burned out with acid.

Kenneth Branagh’s turn as Wallander has been much praised and I understand why: when an actor is trying this hard to put in a well-crafted performance, one feels almost obliged to sit up and clap. In my case, though, the emphasis is on the word “almost”. I can’t quite do it. Clap, I mean.

His understatement leaves me cold and I’ve never quite believed in him as a cop. “Ah, look,” I think, as he reaches for his pistol. “There’s Ken Branagh pretending to be a policeman.” And then my mind wanders. (Usually, I remember him as Guy Pringle in the BBC’s 1987 adaptation of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War and wonder if it’s available as a DVD. I believed in him as Guy – though that may just have been youthful enthusiasm.)

His relationships fail to convince, too. He and Vanja were more like brother and sister than lovers. In Riga, he fell for Baiba Liepa (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), the Latvian cop’s widow, but between them you felt no heat at all. I would feel fine about such emotional minimalism if he spent all his time with another police officer; the sentiment, however restrained, could pool up there.

He’s a lone shark, really. Certainly, as he sits by the hospital bed of his colleague Ann-Britt Höglund (Sarah Smart), who is in a coma having been coshed by a suspect, there is just more of the same. Wallander, you feel, is little more than a cipher. The brow wrinkles, the eyes scan a non-existent horizon, the director says: “Cut!”

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future