Monday, 28 May 2012

The Three Faces Of Wallander

The BBC4 broadcast of Sebastian Bergman, another Swedish thriller export featuring Rolf Lassgard, at the weekend set me thinking of Lassgard's previous and most famous role; that of Henning Mankell's literary detective Kurt Wallander.

I've been a huge fan of Scandinavian crime novels for many years now. Once upon a time I had to order in the books or search in quiet overlooked corners of Waterstones etc for Mankell, Sjowall and Wahloo, Lackberg and Nesbo. Now, thanks to the boom from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, BBC4's showing of Wallander and The Killing and the BBC's own version of the former, a huge fanbase has developed and those quiet little corners of mine have disappeared. I, and many many others, are like children in a sweet shop, spoiled for choice - and it's often overwhelming.

But typically, we in the UK got it a bit arse about face when it came to Wallander. We got our own version first, followed by the Krister Henriksson series from Sweden and lastly, Lassgard. So let's take a look at them.

The original: Rolf Lassgard

Lassgard was previously famous for playing gruff detective Larsson in adaptations of Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck series before taking on the mantle of Wallander in 1994, a role he continued to play up until 2007 which makes him not just the first, but the longest running. 

Hilariously, several 'Emperor's New Clothes' fans over here in the UK had a little sulk and a gripe when BBC4 broadcast three of his Wallander films last year - complaining that he was wrong for the role and how they preferred the original, Krister Henriksson; not realising that just because they saw Henriksson first doesn't make him the original! Oh dear. 

For me, Lassgard is the perfect Wallander for his films. The Wallander of the novels is problematic, reckless, overweight and rather grumpy. These are all qualities Lassgard imbued and rightly so, given his films were pure adaptations of Mankell's source material. Of course, he's completely different to Henriksson...

The international success: Krister Henriksson

In a remarkable case of shooting yourself in the foot, BBC4 broadcast two Swedish Wallander films; 'Before The Frost' and 'Mastermind' over one weekend when the first series of the UK version with Kenneth Branagh aired. Whilst Branagh's interpretation is in no way a failure (more on this later) the general consensus was that people preferred the Swedish originals and so, realising they were onto something, BBC4 swiftly bought both of Krister Henriksson's series sparking the huge interest in all things Scandinavian we know now.

Henriksson's Wallander is completely different to Lassgard's and, to that extent, rather different to the Wallander in the books. The series takes up where Mankell's (at the time) final novel, 'Before The Frost' left off, placing Kurt's daughter Linda in the police force (played beautifully by Johanna Sallstrom who tragically committed suicide in 2007, necessitating a change of direction for the second series that made the on screen woes of Kurt all the greater, and  though his daughter's fate was never expressly stated in the episodes that followed, it was strongly implied she had died like the splendid actress who had portrayed her) It's true to say that the Wallander we see between 2006 to 2009 is older, more careworn and more sensible. He's a sombre person, the tragedies he's seen over his forty years as a policeman having taken their toll. He's also now very senior and as such the previous recklessness and seeming perpetual desire to hit the self destruct button we saw from Lassgard and in the novels is now nowhere to be seen. He's leaner, healthier, more cautious and wiser.

Henriksson remains the definitive Wallander in the UK and he's a remarkable actor.

The UK pretender: Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh was lured to television in 2008 to play the Swedish detective. The series of three 90 minute films were hugely influential, changing the way the BBC approached and made crime series. It's a legacy that is bigger than the show itself; Sherlock for example, was originally conceived as a set of six hour long episodes, but after Wallander, the notion of event TV occurred and the BBC hastily requested the Sherlock team to follow suit and produce three 90 minute films instead. However, whilst Sherlock became a huge and unexpected runaway hit with lengthy pauses between series 1 and series two (necessitated by the team's other work on it's stablemate Doctor Who) having the audience begging for more, Wallander hasn't had the same impact. The first series was a brilliant, well crafted and well designed and attractive piece of TV that, because of Branagh's other projects (such as directing Thor) meant it did not return for a second series of three films until 2010...but not to the same hungry audiences that would meet Sherlock on it's second run. By this point, BBC4, sating the appetite for more, had the nation hooked on the Henriksson series and, unfortunately, Branagh was considered the poor relation. Again, there was a touch of 'Emperor's New Clothes' in sniffy criticism that pointed out Branagh's interpretation was too emotive and the whole affair felt too forced. These people failed to consider that Branagh was adapting the novels and so was presenting a younger Wallander than the more weary and wiser Henriksson, or that in being a UK production overseas they had to approach the foreign aspect full on, to show how different this was than the dour UK of A Touch Of Frost or the dreaming spires of Inspector Morse. If anything the series visual style and sense of the European is the one thing that truly makes it stand out, and makes it a joy to watch, so it's a deep shame that that was levelled as a criticism. If there is one criticism I personally have towards Branagh's series, it's the cardinal sin of adapting the books out of order which meant a lot of the character's back stories and the history in the story had to be rewritten and reinvented. 

A third and final series will be broadcast next year, but already it feels like what was once so promising, may have run out of steam; hoist by its own petard. 

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