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Wallander: Firewall (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.

Firewall feels a bit more like a conventional little mystery thriller, especially measured against Sidetracked, the pilot episode of Wallander. It’s very much a conventional television “whodunnit” (or, perhaps, a “whydunnit”), with our lead character opening an investigation into a fairly simple case, but asking a series of questions that point towards something all-together larger. It does feel a bit lighter than its direct predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it retains the two key virtues of the series. Kenneth Branagh is still on fine form as the eponymous detective, while the Swedish scenery is still absolutely haunting.

Hitting a brick Wallander...

Director Philip Martin did not return to work on Firewall, instead helming the first season finale, One Step Behind. Instead, Niall MacCormick helms the second feature-length episode, perhaps explaining how it looks so marvellously different. There’s an impressive aesthetic shift between the first episode and the second episode, beautifully illustrating how evocative the Swedish setting can be.

While rich colours provided a stunning backdrop that existed in contrast to the seedy secrets at the heart of Sidetracked, here the environment seems almost attuned to Wallander’s own melancholy. Dark clouds loom overhead, and it seems like there a cold and wet front that simply won’t break – instead it just hangs over us. A news broadcast informs us that it is “the longest day of the year”, but that seems like a dark joke by the powers that be. While it might not be complete darkness, there’s precious little daylight to be found.

Blood on her hands...

That doesn’t mean that MacCormick doesn’t have an eye for beauty. While there’s nothing the quite matches the eerie beauty of that opening scene in the field, the Swedish locale gives this detective drama a rather heavy and ominous tone. What should be a simple exposition scene, as Wallander talks to the father of a murder victim on a narrow road between two fields, becomes something absolutely impressive. The wind dances across the vegetation, and the entire countryside seems to be expressing Wallander’s internalised pessimism and his darker thoughts.

Atmospheric doesn’t begin to describe it, and the sound department deserve particular praise for crafting a convincing aural landscape. Early on, the detective explains how he likes to listen to the ambient sound, and how it gives texture to his work. Appropriately enough, MacCormick takes the cue to give us an insight into the world as Wallander hears it, with all manner of background noise fully audible for the audience to digest, much like Wallander himself.

A bunch of hacks...

Of course, there are some problems with the darker visual style to this particular episode. Watching on my relatively small iPod screen on the way to work, it was quite difficult to follow the climactic action sequence, set amidst a particularly thick Swedish fog. Still, that was very much the exception to the rule, and I’m sure that it looked absolutely fabulous in high definition on a big screen, as it was clearly meant to be seen.

Aside from the slight shift in aesthetic, Firewall seems like a more straightforward mystery adventure than its direct predecessor. As Wallander pokes around the murder of a taxi driver by a girl who “just needed some cash”, he uncovers something more far-reaching. Things get especially fascinating when the two cases he is investigating suddenly over lap, as seems to be mandatory in shows of this nature. “That’s crazy,” his sidekick, Martinsson, suggests. “This is a completely different case.”It isn’t at all.

You've got to be kidding me...

Unlike Sidetracked, which felt distinctively Swedish, there’s a sense that Firewall could have been set anywhere, or transposed to Britain quite easily. In fact, it’s based on a ripped-from-the-headlines plot point that originally involved Estonia and Russia, rather than anything particularly Scandinavian. Not that there’s anything wrong  with this approach, it feels considerably broader and perhaps more accessible than the first episode, and there’s a wonderful sense of scale to the threat that Wallander stumbles across.

Branagh continues to distinguish the series, arguably turning in a performance that is far more interesting than the character in question. Wallander continues to be a collection of instant cop-show clichés, the guy struggling to balance the work he does with any personal life. “You can’t live your life like this,” his daughter tells him. “Alone in this room, dealing with this stuff.” When he assures his daughter that the case he is working on is important, she replies, “I know, but does there always have to be something more important than you having a life?”

Terrible teens...

In fairness, this episode does a much better job with the character’s personal life, as he joins a dating site in the wake of his divorce. The way the plot ultimately unfolds is just a little bit convenient, but it works well enough. Branagh is a convincing enough actor, and McCormick is a solid enough director, that you never really stop to think too much of the logistics of what happened. More than that, though, Branagh has remarkable chemistry with his date, played by the always superb Orla Brady. It does tie itself up rather conveniently, but the pace is brisk enough that you don’t mind too much.

Firewall might not work quite as well as the first episode in the series, but it’s still a solidly constructed little thriller. The plotting is conventional, but the production is exceptional. I think Wallander really benefits from its lavish setting, wonderful technical staff and its impressive leading actor.

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

2 Responses

  1. Loved the entire Wallander series but you watch it for reasons other than character and story coming together. What I mean is sometimes the character arc works and sometimes the mystery works…but generally not both yet you watch because both are equally fascinating when they are good. Cheers,

    • Thanks, glad you like it. I have yet to see the second season, before the third one starts next Sunday.

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