Before Sarah Lund, and Saga Noren, and even before the journo-turned-investigator, Mikael Blomkvist, there was Kurt Wallander: the Scandinavian detective who began a global obsession with terrible crimes in cold countries. And he turned out to be particularly addictive. With his passion for opera and his fondness for booze, he had a touch of Morse to him, but only if Morse were removed from the cosy confines of Oxford and placed in a bleak, greenish-grey Swedish landscape.
So far, Wallander has had three faces: Rolf Lassgard, the blond, ill-kempt star of the Swedish film version; Krister Henriksson, the dark-haired father, trying but failing to placate his troubled daughter, Linda, in the Swedish TV version; and our very own Kenneth Branagh, as the English language Wallander, perpetually weary and drained of colour. The stories overlap (the English versions and the Swedish films are based on the same novels, and the most recent Branagh episode, Before The Frost, is where the Swedish TV show begins), and so do the locations: even the English version is shot in Ystad, where Wallander works.
And yet it’s perfectly possible to watch all three and not feel over-loaded. The Swedish films are the slowest-paced, whereas the UK version allows you to spot people (Soren Malling, who played Jan Meyer) from The Killing and hear him speaking English, while playing a Latvian. As ITV3’s Murder, She Wrote trailers imply, detective fans have a limitless capacity to re-watch the same plots, either because we have forgotten the perpetrator, or because we don’t mind that we remember. We want the solution, but perhaps we enjoy it less than the process of solving.
If you had to pick a single moment which defines Lassgard’s depiction of the depressive Swedish detective, it’s the moment in Faceless Killers, when he says to a colleague, ‘You need to die sometime’. It’s the word ‘need’ that reveals so much: it’s not that we’re all going to die, or that he would like to die, it’s the acknowledgement of compulsion. We need to die or we would simply deteriorate forever, and that would be unthinkable, a hint at the Alzheimer’s which Kurt fears will be his future.
Henriksson’s Wallander is older: the films follow Mankell’s novels, but the TV series has new plots (which are based on stories by Mankell). Linda is now a grown-up and a police officer, and Kurt struggles to deal with her presence in his workplace. He warns her off policing, not for selfish reasons, but because he so profoundly fears that she will live as he has: committed to solving crimes, above and beyond all reasonable limits.
Wallander is living proof of the Nietzschean truth that if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. The darkness which he faces every day at work – he nearly dies after being stabbed at the very start of his career – has seeped into his personal life so completely that he can never escape it. It has cost him virtually every important relationship in his life, and left him little consolation.
Branagh’s Wallander , meanwhile, is exhausted by the certainty that whatever he does, it will never be enough. The most recent episodes have shown him dealing with a terrible attack on his colleague, Anne-Britt (Sarah Smart), who receives a coma-inducing head injury. His fury at her attacker soon morphs into a more introspective guilt: she was only in harm’s way because she’d accompanied him on an ill-advised hunch. Branagh’s Wallander has a closer relationship with his colleagues, although the loss of Tom Hiddleston (who was presumably too busy being Loki and Henry V) as Magnus Martinsson from the recent series has left a bit of a gap.
He may be depressive, but he isn’t humourless, since he’s also prone to the odd sly joke: Branagh’s Wallander has a ringtone of almost ineffable sadness, a falling tone whose final rising note does nothing to diminish the sense that only bad news can follow such a woebegone sound. It provoked much internet discussion when the series began, as fans tried to identify it, before discovering that it was written for him specially by the sound editor, Lee Crichlow. In the recent episode, An Event in Autumn (3,1), Wallander’s phone rings for the second time in a matter of moments. ‘How do you fix the ringtones on these things?’ he asks, with mild irritation. ‘It suits you,’ replies his girlfriend.
In every interpretation, Wallander is very much a man of his time, and place. His Sweden is one beset by racial conflict, and so is he. He will leap into a burning building to try to save the lives of migrant workers, but he is still uncertain when his daughter shows up, dating a black guy. It’s proof of his character’s complexity that he can recognise his contrasting emotions, and over-ride the one he knows to be wrong: he immediately gives Linda’s boyfriend tickets so he can take her to the opera in Copenhagen. But immigration and its tensions are never far from his mind, or his cases.
He fears change, in Swedish society and in his own life. But above all, he fears becoming his father: a man with whom he has only ever had the most difficult relationship, even before Alzheimer’s claimed so much of Povel Wallander. His father has spent his life painting almost identical pictures: always the same scene, with a few minor differences. Yet they continue to sell in large numbers: Wallander spots them as he goes about his work. Maybe they act as a metaphor for the many adaptations of Mankell’s novels: it seems his viewers can’t get enough of a good thing.