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Lost in translation

Authenticity wins over spontaneity in this Swedish-set detective series Wallander

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It is hard to generalise about Kenneth Branagh - actor, director and all-round lipless wonder - because, for every brilliant thing he does, he will always commit some gross crime against art roughly five minutes later (it was Branagh who directed the 2007 remake of Sleuth starring Jude Law, a film so bad, it should be illegal).

Even so, I will always love him. In 1987, he was Guy Pringle in a BBC adaptation of Olivia Manning's novel cycle Fortunes of War, which I saw in the last, desperately boring months before I swapped home for university. His Guy, all horn-rimmed glasses and tamped-down emotions, came to me like a promise: this, surely, was the kind of young man I would soon meet . . . and possibly sleep with! When, later on, such a figure singularly failed to materialise in my college bar, I was disappointed, but I didn't hold it against him for long. He'd got me through seven weeks of the longest year of my life - and some day soon, I will order a DVD boxed set so that I can enjoy his lovely, distracted tweediness all over again.

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?

The truth is that watching Wallander is like reading a novel in what you guess to be a bad translation. Correct locations and authentic interiors are apparently not enough when it comes to establishing that this is supposed to be Sweden. Somewhere along the line, the director appears to have made the decision to ask all his actors to push British inflections and regional accents out of their voices, the better to make them sound Scandinavian, with the result that everyone speaks in the same robotically classless way, their voices often wholly leached of emotion.

At first, this was just annoying, like watching a badly dubbed film. The cast, enunciating v-e-r-y carefully, seemed to be moving through jelly (that'd be lingonberry jelly, of course). Then it got silly. "I have to punish them," said our murderer, Stefan (Nicholas Hoult), axe swinging above his next victim's head. He might as well have been ordering a double caffè latte and an open sandwich, for all that he struck the fear of God into me.

Come on, guys. Is this the land of meatballs, or is it the land of Daleks?

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9 December, 9pm, Channel 4
Bossy Ruth Watson helps hard-up nobs turn a profit. Our hearts bleed.

Little Dorrit
11 December, 8pm, BBC1
Hour-long finale: complete and total Dickens heaven.

Cutting Edge: the Pregnant Man
11 December, 9pm, Channel 4
Film about gender, and the story of an expectant transgender-man.

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 appears in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror