It’s been interesting to monitor the coverage of BBC1’s new three-part season of television films featuring Kenneth Branagh as Inspector Kurt Wallander of the Ystad Police on the Southern coast of Sweden.
I started reading the Kurt Wallander books when the first English translations appeared in paperback four or five years ago. I was immediately hooked and read several more of Mankell’s novels, including both the Wallander series and others. Mankell is an old-fashioned Swedish socialist and all-round good guy with a commitment to his work in Mozambique where he runs a community theatre in Maputo. His police procedurals featuring Wallander carry some of the author’s concerns into a critique of Swedish society. I like this, but what’s most important is that Wallander is at once both the typical beat-up and dysfunctional ex-husband and son/father and a professional who makes honest, human mistakes, but sticks around to see the job through. The books are long and there is a lot of ‘procedure’ which perversely I enjoy as much if not more than the bursts of action. I guess I idly wondered how the books would work on film or television and now I have a chance to find out.
Wallander is a joint BBC Scotland/Yellow Bird (Zodiak Sweden) production with Branagh’s own company and the impetus seems to have come from Branagh himself. According to the BBC Press Release, Yellow Bird have already made 13 Wallander films in Sweden (I didn’t think there were that many novels and in fact several of these films are based on roughly outlined ideas by Mankell – see below).
In conjunction with this, BBC4 has screened a 1 hour documentary on Mankell and Wallander, fronted by John Harvey, one of Britain’s best crime writers who created his own similar character – Charlie Resnick, a Nottingham-based copper who featured in a noirish BBC series in the early 1990s. Here’s a link to John Harvey’s website. He’s just as remarkable a character as Mankell, with a background as an English teacher, a film lecturer, a poet and jazzman and producer of 90 novels – a pulp fiction writer and now a major crime novelist. The BBC couldn’t have found a better interviewer of Mankell. I learned things I might have guessed, but didn’t know. Mankell is enormous in Germany and the Scandinavians clearly like their crime fiction as much as the Germans and the Brits. Once on television, the crime series is as likely to develop a fan culture as much as the books. (According to the BBC4 documentary, Mankell has sold 25 million novels and in Germany outsells J.K. Rowling.)
The documentary was followed by two of the Swedish films, which I intend to compare with Branagh’s version. But first, a few preliminary remarks about the the BBC Wallander. It’s a classy production, shot in Sweden but with a UK cast. It’s lensed by Anthony Dod Mantle (hero figure on films by Danny Boyle and various Dogme projects) using a digital RED camera (source: Wikipedia which has quite a detailed entry). The series has a big budget. £7.5 million for three 90 minutes single films is way above the current average for a ‘domestic’ British feature film. Budgets in the film industry have fallen so much that most cinema films in the UK cost less than £2 million. So, the series should look good, especially if the RED camera allows more of the budget to go on effects and location dressing etc.
So far, I’ve watched 2 and a half of the three films. I’ve enjoyed them all, but then I think Mankell’s material is potentially so attractive that it would be difficult for a highly competent crew to mess up – and I don’t think they do. Overall, the films are, I think more successful than most of the British TV crime series of the last twenty years (that I’ve watched). My own benchmark would be Dalziel and Pascoe – at least in the early series. Kenneth Branagh is very good. I used to avoid Branagh when he seemed to be everywhere doing everything, but now I appreciate him a lot more. However . . . he isn’t my idea of Kurt Wallander. This is just a matter of the old literary adaptation syndrome. We all paint mental pictures of what our literary heroes look like and Branagh doesn’t look like the Swedish cop I imagined (there is no reason to think that my imagination is better than the adapters – just different). Mankell himself is full of praise for Branagh and the series – but then Mankell is intimately involved with Yellow Bird as a production company (see the comprehensive English language Swedish website for Mankell’s novels). Wallander’s younger sidekick Martinsson is played by Tom Hiddleston, who I saw a few weeks ago in a film I really disliked called Unrelated. I’m sure I’ve seen some of the other actors as well on UK TV. I find this distracting. There are other decisions about the production that derive from the adaptation. There are dummy editions of the local paper – in Swedish which seems a little strange. I’m trying to think of the conventions in earlier series. I remember the two UK TV versions of Maigret (in the 1960s with Rupert Davies and in the 1990s with Michael Gambon) and there was also a Thames series of Van der Valk with Barry Foster as a Dutch detective in the 1970s. I can’t remember whether any of these were so concerned with the authenticity of props (which do fit awkwardly with characters speaking English)
The two Swedish films that were screened were from a series of 13 produced by Yellow Bird. Before the Frost (2005) was released in cinemas, as was the second film Mastermind (2006) but the rest of the series went straight to DVD/broadcast as far as I can tell. Before the Frost is an adaptation of a Mankell novel in which Wallander’s daughter Linda returns to Ystad having successfully graduated police training. The difficult relationship between father and daughter is now further complicated by having them work together on a case in which Linda herself is implicated. By contrast, Mastermind is, like the other 11 films, based on an original outline by Mankell developed into a script by a team of young writers. Variety‘s Swedish reviewer doesn’t think much of Before the Frost and is particularly critical of Krister Henriksson as Kurt Wallander, comparing him unfavourably to an earlier Swedish casting (which I haven’t seen). I can understand the objections and perhaps the actor isn’t authoritative enough – but he still seemed closer to Wallander than Branagh. The clincher for me was the performance of Johanna Sällström as Linda. Sällström was a star of Swedish TV/film/theatre before the series and I found her both convincing as Linda and a strong performer as a major character in the narrative. She managed to be at once both attractive and charismatic, but also vulnerable and ‘human’ in her emotions. The rest of the casting of the Swedish films certainly worked for me in that the characters in the police team all looked much more like ‘ordinary people’ than well-known actors. What I mean is that there were people who were overweight and balding (i.e. ‘normal’). The office manager in the police station was much more prominent in Mastermind (mainly because the plot sees the police under threat from a criminal with access to the police station).
The interesting aspect of Mastermind was that it began in much the same way as other Wallander stories, but by the end had become less a procedural and much more of a thriller. I found it brutal and terrifying to watch and it seemed very well paced. It was only afterwards that I realised that the plot had several holes and that I’d been led through it much as in the Hollywood movies I tend not to watch these days. I enjoyed the nods at Hitchcock’s Rear Window and I was intrigued by the focus on the father-daughter relationship – central to the narrative here but always present to some extent when Kurt and Linda are working together. Here is a thesis for someone. The middle aged police inspector and his rebellious, disrespectful, feisty daughter/daughter surrogate are central to the Wallander and Rebus stories and also to those of the Icelandic Inspector Erlendur in Jar City and the other novels by Arnaldur Indridason.
Thanks to the wonders of i-Play, I’ve been able to re-watch the BBC2 Late Review team discussing Wallander and Richard Coles (once of The Communards and now a cleric and Radio 4 presenter) made the most interesting points. He referred to the general view that Mankell’s novels are an hommage to the ‘lost social democracy’ of the Sweden of the 1970s/80s. Thus the crimes and criminals that Wallander investigates are often corrupt politicians and business people – often influenced by American ideas – or fascists of one stripe or another. (In other novels he has explored the pro-Nazi fascists who lurk in the darker corners of Swedish life.) As Coles remarks, this casts attention on the younger generation (like Linda) who have grown up under the impact of the disintegrating consensus for social democracy and this explanation of the distance between Kurt and Linda is interesting. What he didn’t say directly, but which is a strong element of the novels, is that many of Mankell’s novels have narratives which see characters travelling abroad or arriving in Sweden as migrants – the loss of consensus is related to the globalisation of Sweden. This creates tension for the international socialist that I assume Mankell to be.
Apart from Branagh’s performance, the other issue that has interested UK critics has been the representation of the Swedish landscape via the specific lighting camerawork. It is certainly the case that the UK series with more money to spend is probably more ambitious in its attempts to present the distinctive landscapes of Southern Sweden with ‘rolling’ countryside comprising fields of grain or grassland leading down to the sea and occasional dense woodland all revealed in midsummer sunshine and long, bright evenings. (I was struck by the similarity of some shots of cars travelling through the landscape and similar scenes in Danish films such as Festen.) The Swedish series (which I watched on a lower definition image) seemed more conventional in its use of lighting and filters.
On the BBC web forum it was certainly the case that enthusiastic viewers were mainly like me in preferring the Swedish series. I hope that BBC4 are going to do more screenings of European crime TV (are there any Japanese or Latin American series they could buy in?). I did catch the Salvo Montalbano films broadcast around the same time and perhaps I’ll blog on those at some future date.