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Wallander: Sidetracked (Review)

The wonderful folks at the BBC have given me access to their BBC Global iPlayer for a month to give the service a go and trawl through the archives. I’ll have some thoughts on the service at the end of the month, but I thought I’d also take the opportunity to enjoy some of the fantastic content.

In hindsight, it’s very hard to divorce Wallander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Both are Swedish murder mysteries exploring the darker side of what one character here terms “the great social experiment”, both involve uncovering old secrets buried in the past, and both are adapted by the production company Yellow Bird. In fact, the BBC adaptation of Henning Mankell’s novels actually debuted a year before the theatrical release of that other hugely influential Scandinavian thriller. Featuring a blistering centre performance from Kenneth Branagh and absolutely superb production, I think that the BBC’s production of Wallander actually stands in fairly good company.

Out in the field...

I’ve rambled before about how the BBC might just be the best public service broadcaster in the world, and I say that as somebody living outside the broadcaster’s remit. The company has a tremendous vision, with a huge range of programming designed to appeal to all tastes. You can literally find anything you want on the BBC. More than that, though, the brand is fairly synonymous with quality. Even going back to classic thrillers like Edge of Darkness, there’s never a sense that it was filmed on a tight budget, and the BBC has single-handedly set the benchmark for period drama.

Wallander looks like it should be a feature film. Indeed, as directed by Philip Martin, the feature-length debut actually looks like more of a film than the original Swedish adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s hard to find a frame or a composition within the show that doesn’t manage to look eerily and hauntingly beautiful, as if lifted from one of the landscape illustrations produced by our lead character’s father. Even the smaller moments of character interaction are intense without being overwhelming. Martin doesn’t succumb to quick cutting, but rather intense close-ups, counting on his actors to convey the requisite emotion instead of trying to create it from scratch in the editing room.

Let him be Kurt with you...

The opening shot of Sidetracked, in particular, is ethereal and sublime, as a lone girl is lost amid a sea of yellow, and our eponymous detective tries to seek her out. Martin manages to make the surroundings and settings look absolutely stunning, but also somehow unreal – as if suggesting the heart of darkness that beats beneath the polished and carefully-maintained surface. The show was shot in Ystad, and it lends it a wonderful flavour, the kind that you would gain by transposing the story to England or even using the UK as a stand-in for Sweden.

The show does, however, make some skilful translations. There’s never any doubt that we’re in Sweden – as the road signs, newspapers and other bits of text assure us – but it’s Sweden with a decidedly British accent. The principle cast is made up of an all-star cast of experienced British thespians, and none of them try to mask their nationality. It is, initially at least, a little strange to hear distinctly British accents making constant references to “Bjorn” and “Gustav”, but it works remarkably well; not least because it allows the series to focus on the performances, rather than any sort of gimmick.

A Scandanavian scandal...

This is, literally, Branagh’s show – and he owns it. I think that the character of Kurt Wallander is actually the weakest part of this initial mystery, as the script introduces us to him and his baggage rather… bluntly. I suspect that it’ll be developed with a bit more nuance, but it seems like Wallander was literally drafted from a collection of left-over cop-show clichés. “You seem to be in crisis at the moment,” the team’s new profiler points out, summing up Wallander’s situation for us. “You recently split with your wife, you have a troubled relationship with you daughter and now your father has Alzheimer’s.” Just add water and you’ve got yourself a cop-show.

However, that discounts Kenneth Branagh. I think that a large part of the appeal of these British police procedurals over their American counterparts is the involvement of such raw talent. Idris Elba is Luther, for example. I genuinely believe that Kenneth Branagh is an incredible talent, even if he has made a misstep or two along the way. I will maintain that he has produced the best big-screen version of Hamlet to date, Olivier be damned! Here, he manages to take a relatively shallow characterisation and heap pathos on top of it. You really feel sorry for the guy and the crap he goes through, even though you’ve seen it all before and you know where his emotional arc is heading.

Drink it in...

It helps that Branagh is ably supported by a superb cast including Tom Hiddleston, David Warner and Nicholas Hoult. Warner has always been a favourite of mine, due to his contributions to cult cinema, and Hiddleston and Hoult have actually developed as major talents in their own right since the series began. It’s a testament to the casting directors and producers on the series that they were able to bring together such a talented group of people for the show.

The episode itself, Sidetracked, is a suitably grimy and disturbing little exploration of the underbelly of the Swedish social strata. It’s interesting that the nation has produced two of the most successful mystery franchises in recent times, both poking around the shadows of the nation’s prosperity and liberation. Sidetracked is a very dirty little tale about what goes on behind closed doors, and it shares some fairly substantial thematic ground with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s not too much to imagine this episode’s serial killer as a spiritual companion to the iconic Lisbeth Salander, even beyond the little motor bike and leather ensemble.

Branagh new day...

It’s pretty heavy stuff, and quite uncomfortable at times. Mankell explores the consequences of such systemic violence and abuse on the next generation, the children and the youth who grow up in an environment rife with such casual corruption. This circle of government ministers and art dealers and crooked cops helped define Swedish identity, and the episode makes a big deal of how socially acceptable all of them were (barring the sleazy lowlife who was forced to wait outside their parties). So what happens to the children that grew up in the shadow of such systematic abuse? It lends Sidetracked a hefty sense of tragedy, as we hear about kids who self-harm – and one little boy who stabbed his face repeatedly with a fork “like he was trying to put his own eyes out.”

Martin Phipps provides a nice ambient soundtrack that perfectly compliments Anthony Dod Mantle’s rich cinematography. It really does look like the kind of thing you could easily watch on a big screen, even as it streamed to my iPhone. There’s a rich quality to it that really stands as a testament to all those involved. It’s a shame that the BBC saw fit to run the credits ridiculously fast at the end of the episode.

Does not compute...

Sidetracked might lean a little bit too heavily on setting up the status quo for the eponymous detective, trying to cover a lot of ground very quickly, but it is a rather stunning little murder mystery, with a decidedly seedy core. With a fantastic director and superb leading actor, there’s no reason for any fan of Scandinavian thrillers (or thrillers in general) to miss out on this series.

Check out our complete reviews of the first season of Wallander:

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