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Wallander: One Step Behind (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.

And so we reach the end of the first season of the British adaptations of Henning Mankell’s acclaimed Swedish crime novels. Wallander is a series that is probably much stronger than it really should be, offering ninety-minute-long mysteries that are produced the standards of feature films. Director Philip Martin returns after directing the first episode to helm the final in the first trilogy of adaptations. (There would be a second set of three broadcast in 2010 and another set of three to be shown in 2012.) Strangely enough, this final episode actually manages to give a significant amount of depth to the title character, finally suggesting a role worthy of the depth Branagh imbues into it.

We've got a hit on our hands...

In fairness, the first three adaptations where a fairly eclectic mix, and the show hasn’t quite settled into a familiar pattern. I think that adds to the appeal of the detective series. The fact that it doesn’t rigidly adhere to a particular plot formula helps each adventure to feel like a movie that happens to star the same character. While the stories do cover quite similar thematic ground, and there’s an obvious tonal overlap, there’s enough variety in the three episodes that none of them ever become stale or boring.

Sidetracked presented a brutal exploration of the dark underside of Swedish culture, calling to mind the classy and overwhelming uneasy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, albeit with fewer former Nazis. Firewall was a more conventional thriller, as the investigation into a seemingly random murder led to the discover of a far more sinister and far-reaching conspiracy. In contrast,One Step Behind feels like a decidedly more intimate affair. While there is a serial killer on the loose, the episode hinges very much on small-scale character drama, in particular the nature of Detective Kurt Wallander as brought to life by Kenneth Branagh.

A driven detective...

During the first two episodes, I’ll confess that I wasn’t necessarily “sold” on the character of Wallander, who appeared to be a collection of television detective clichés. He was an inspector haunted by the job, with a failed marriage and a daughter who took care of him because he was unable to live outside his work. He was scruffy and unkempt (and unsocial), but he was smart and observant. His father was suffering a debilitating illness. At times, it seemed like the episodes were constructed as sinister Rube Goldberg machines designed to chip away at whatever faith he had left in mankind.

Don’t get me wrong. Branagh is exceptional, and he manages to take this archetype and make him compelling to watch – that’s no small accomplishment. It doesn’t hurt that Branagh seems to have remarkable chemistry with every other actor he encounters, even when spouting exposition or furthering the plot. Throughout Sidetracked and Firewall, Branagh was very much the most fascinating aspect of the lead character. However, One Step Behind actually manages to make the central character interesting in his own right.

Wet work...

It doesn’t necessarily offer us a new insight on the compulsive and obsessive detective, but it does do an excellent job of using those archetypal traits to tell a compelling story. Indeed, the episode features a rather marvellous central concept, as Wallander and his colleagues find themselves investigating a case that a dead colleague was looking into only weeks beforehand. Taking that rather clever narrative device, the show is able to explore just how isolated and introverted Wallander is, and how poorly-attuned he is to the people who occupy the world around him.

When a fellow officer tries to open up to him about some deeply “personal stuff”, Wallander is dismissive. He seems to think it’s an attempt at emotional manipulation, asking for more time off. Cutting off his colleague Wallander explains, “I’m sorry I can’t let you have any more time off. I mean, we’re pushed as it is.” After the death of a fellow officer, Wallander is shocked to discover that his guy he hardly knew considered Wallander his “best friend.” Making inquiries following the death of the officer in question, the deceased’s cousin wonders how Wallander could know so little about a guy who shared an office with him. “How long were you working with him?”

Cop out...

Branagh rises to the material and gives his best performance in the show to date, especially during a short interlude with the survivor of a massacre. Branagh brings a wonderful sense of vulnerability and compassion to the character, beneath the fatigued and world-weary exterior. I really can’t overstate just how crucial Branagh’s central performance is to the show, though One Step Behind allows the character to catch up with him, and gives the actor material to sink his teeth into.

The episode’s central mystery doesn’t just make good use of Wallander, it also gives us the best us of the supporting cast so far. In particular, it gives the superb Tom Hiddleston something to do in the role of the young officer trying desperately to prove himself to his superior. Hiddleston has since emerged as a young talent to watch, and it was his work with Branagh here that convinced the older actor-director to cast him in Thor, another piece of work with Scandinavian underpinnings.

If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of abig surprise...

With the truth about Wallander’s relationships with his fellow officers suddenly open to scrutiny, Hiddleston’s performance suddenly becomes a lot more interesting, as he’s clearly seeking the approval of his surrogate father figure. There’s a wonderful moment when the pair arrive at a locked apartment and, eager-to-please and having clearly watched one too many American television shows, Martinsson suggests, “I could kick it. Do you want me to kick it?”

The adventure continues to develop themes from the previous two episodes, adding texture to how this version of Sweden functions, and how fundamentally broken it is underneath a sleek and stylish exterior. Interestingly, all three episodes feature younger characters as (often simultaneously) victims and perpetrators, caught in a cycle of violence inherited from older generations. In Sidetracked, the youth actively strike back for wrongs committed against them by those in positions of authority; in Firewall, a young girl takes the life of a father of the boy who raped her, after getting caught up in the cause of another cynical and exploitive older man.

Calling him out...

Here we have a bunch of young kids brutally murdered while celebrating Midsummer’s Eve. They’re dressed in outdated and old-fashioned clothes, literally steeped in history. Investigating one of that circle, Wallander discovers that not only had she attempted suicide, but her brother had killed himself. In a powerful moment, Wallander confesses that even his own daughter attempted suicide, which was also an undertone in Sidetracked.

There seems to be an indication that the older generation have somehow failed their children, and it runs through the series. Not only does Wallander literally fail to protect a teenage witness here, but he’s revealed to be completely dependent on his daughter. Esther’s parents seem to take little interest in her, and lock her out of the family house while they are on vacation. It’s a fascinating theme, and quite a hefty one – I think that the series handles it well, and it provides a nice subtext to Wallander’s investigations.

Being Kurt with his team...

As usual, the production values on the series are superb. While Niall MacCormick did a great job with Firewall, it is good to have Martin back directing. The colours are a bit more subdued than in Sidetracked, but there’s still a fundamental contrast between the environment and the secrets that it hides. (In contrast to Firewall, where the atmosphere reflects Wallander’s own psychology.) The decision to film in Ystad continues to define the show, and to set it apart from most of the other contenders.

I would note that, for some strange reason, the episode was streamed on the iPlayer in full screen, rather than the more cinematic widescreen that was used on the previous two episodes. I prefer the widescreen approach, and it seems especially strange to switch in the middle of a season. Still, as the second season of the show doesn’t yet look to be available in the iPlayer, I won’t complain. The colours are much more vibrant here, and the images are crisp – it streams quite well. Martin’s tendency to focus on his actors while breathing in the local scenery means that very little is lost in translation.

Riding (not-quite-shot)gun...

All in all, a pretty great ending to a pretty great first season, wisely playing to the strengths of the production. The three instalments in the series have so far been to the standard of well-produced feature films, and the BBC deserves credit for bringing the novels to life in such a vibrant and high-quality fashion. There’s a new season starting on the BBC at the start of April, and I’ll be safely on board for that.

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

7 Responses

  1. In “One Step Behind”, Ann-Britt makes a glaring mispronunciation of one of the Swedish town’s names…. pronouncing Nykoping (nyshurping as pronounced in Swedish) as Nykopping instead (the English way to pronounce Nykoping).
    In Sweden the O in Nykoping has two dots above it making the sound “ur” instead of “ow”.
    The editor should have made sure that’s the town was pronounced in the Swedish manner rather than the English.

    • I did not know that. But I do think there’s a translation convention in effect to an extent. The characters don’t speak with accents (because they wouldn’t be speaking English with a Swedish accent, they’d just be speaking Swedish), so I categorise that as something that can be put down to suspension of disbelief. That said, I did find it interesting in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that everybody except Daniel Craig put on a Swedish accent. That just messes with my head.

  2. i don’t get the end where Kurt’s gun just clicks. Nothing was explained. what it a misfire? not loaded? on safety?

    • Hi Mike. I feel kinda bad, but I can’t even remember that sequence now! It feels like it’s been forever.

    • This is a incredibly old and probably irrelevant now, but I think we’re to believe Kurt never remembered to reload. He emptied his clip shooting at the boat after Isa was killed. I thought it was an intentional testament to what a mess he was at the time, but there could be something else I missed.

  3. I’m catching this years later on reruns, so I shouldn’t be spoiling anything for anyone. A basic question: what was the killer’s motivation? They neatly deduced who did the killing, but not why.

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