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Crime and Punishment: An Advance Review of PBS' Gripping Mystery Series "Wallander"

"A really good detective never gets married." - Raymond Chandler

Many detectives would take Chandler's edict to heart, given just how married they are to their jobs, and the bookshelves are lined with detective novels about grim gumshoes who forsake their own personal lives in pursuit of catching killers. After all, detectives are prone to seeing the worst of humanity on a daily basis, of seeing the skull beneath the skin, companions as they are of death and murder.

Enter Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh), a detective in the seaside town of Ystad, Sweden who--like many others of his ilk--has his own horrific demons to battle even as he throws himself into chasing criminals with intense abandon. And while we've all seen stories of flawed detectives a zillion times, PBS' Wallander, a co-production between WGBH and BBC which kicks off on Sunday night as part of Masterpiece Mystery, offers a tautly gripping and suspenseful roller coaster ride through the dark heartland of both coastal Sweden and the recesses of Kurt Wallander himself.

Based on a series of best-selling novels by Henning Mankell and adapted by Richard Cottan and Richard McBrien, Wallander is relentlessly bleak, offering some of the most shockingly gruesome crimes ever seen on the small screen. And yet, with Branagh casting his spell as the dogged and damaged detective, it's impossible to look away. So completely does Branagh sink into the role of the emotionally armoured Kurt Wallander that it's impossible to recognize the actor from his previous roles. Exhausted, rumpled, and driven, Wallander might be inherently flawed but you'd want him on the case if anything awful happened to you.

I had the opportunity to watch the three episodes--"Sidetracked," "Firewall," and "One Step Behind,"--that comprise Wallander's first season a few weeks back and I was completely sucked into the dark and twisted world that Kurt Wallander inhabits. These are gritty mysteries that are as far removed from the drawing room crimes of Agatha Christie as much as Ystad is as distant to the English countryside. There's an intoxicating hardness to these cases, which revolve around a serial killer who scalps his victims, a young woman who sets herself on fire in front of Wallander's eyes, two teenage girls who calmly murder a taxi driver, a vast network of conspirators, and a killer who who stalks and murders people engaging in secret rites.

Adding to the grittiness of the mysteries is the fact that the three episodes were filmed on location in Sweden, which gives the piece a verisimilitude that can't possibly be achieved by filming in a studio. Everything--from the stark landscape to the chill in the air--casts an aura of iciness over Wallander and this effect is heightened by the use of blue filters on the film. The three episodes of Wallander, directed by Philip Martin and Niall MacCormick, contain some of the most beautiful imagery seen on the small screen. Each installment is breathtakingly gorgeous and the beauty of the direction and cinematography are at sharp contrast with the darkness of the cases that Wallander tackles.

As I mentioned before, Branagh is sensational and perfectly cast as Kurt Wallander. When we first meet Wallander, he's just separated from his wife and has once again thrown himself into his work, his health (and one might argue, his sanity) are suffering, and he finds himself being controlled by his well-meaning daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) as he deals with his artist father (David Warner), who is succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. Suffice it to say, Wallander feels pulled in an infinite number of directions at once. But Wallander's true issue is that he gets so emotionally invested in his cases--he cares too much for the murdered--that he's dead inside when he comes to his own life. Surrounded by death, Wallander can't remember how to truly live.

The rest of Wallander's cast is equally top-notch. Special attention has to be given to Kurt Wallander's colleagues, played with aplomb by Tom Hiddleston (Suburban Shootout), Tom Beard (Silent Witness), Sadie Shimmin (The Bill), Richard McCabe (Einstein and Eddington), and Sarah Smart (Casualty 1907), as well as the aforementioned Jeany Spark (Tess of the d'Urbervilles) as the sunny Linda Wallander, who carries her own kernel of darkness in her heart. Guest stars include Skins' Nicholas Hoult, Secret Diary of a Call Girl's Ashley Madekwe, Conviction's David Warner, and Mistresses' Orla Brady.

Ultimately, Wallander is a perfect synthesis of its parts and is wholly different from the usual offerings of Hercule Poirot or Miss Maple, offering audiences a series of gripping and brutally original mysteries, each with a dark undercurrent of dread from which it is impossible to escape.

Wallander's three-episode season will air Sundays, May 10th, 17th, and 24th at 9 pm as part of Masterpiece Mystery on PBS. Check your local listings for details.


Barrett said…
Oooh...Kenneth Branagh + Murder Mystery? This sounds fantastic! Thanks so much for the great review!
NicholasJ said…
I've heard great things about this. Thanks for reminding me that it was on!
Anonymous said…
If anyone else needs any further encouragement after Jace's excellent preview, I can heartily second his recommendation. It is one of those rare occasions where everything comes together, the writing, acting, directing, and it is just so damn beautiful to look at. It was filmed in HD if it is possible to see it in that.

Jace, on this side of the pond everyone always talks about the superiority of US TV output at the moment - I think, aside from notable exceptions such as Wallander, they are right for the most part - but you are in a unique position to post an article on that subject. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts.
Annie said…
This sounds amazing. Will definitely be watching on Sunday.
Mazza said…
Thanks for yet another brilliant review, Jace. I hadn't heard of this before reading but I will definitely check it out as I love Kenneth Branagh and mysteries. I got chills just reading this!
Madeleine said…
Oh, I have to see this. Sounds great. Especially since I´m swedish. Have seen Wallander played by swedish actors before. Think Branagh will out play them all.
Had a good laugh when he pronounced Wallader.
Anyone in the Sacramento area know when it will be playing? It's not scheduled.

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