Although he's not been away exactly, it's fair to say that Kenneth Branagh has been playing a waiting game. His early autobiography, Beginnings, charted his rise to fame with an almost indecent modesty; chiefly because he was too busy working to bask in his own glory. That volume ended with the making of Henry V in 1989, one of the best ever Shakespeare films – and also the start of a levelling-out period in the boy wonder's career.
Older, wiser, happily married and settled, but still only 47, Branagh is unquestionably this year's comeback kid. His stage performance as Chekhov's Ivanov at the Wyndham's Theatre, the first in the Donmar Warehouse West End season, is an uncontested triumph. You watch Branagh and wonder how he does it. He looks ordinary, his mouth is pinched, his walk is a curious waddle and he looks annoyingly well-fed.
But he tears you apart as the irascible, suicidal landowner who is unforgivably cruel to his dying wife while being sucked inexorably into the black hole of his own sense of failure and depression. Ivanov is not a laugh a minute. He's a hopeless, helpless nincompoop. The really great thing about the performance, though, is that not for one minute does Branagh seek our sympathy in the role. And that's why, paradoxically, we care about him so much.
Now Branagh is risking a further assault on our tolerance in playing the Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander – already dubbed the Norse Morse – in three 90-minute films based on the best-selling crime novels of Henning Mankell (who's sold more than 30 million books in 40 languages in a hundred countries). For Wallander, not to put too fine a point on it, is troubled, a man who solves other people's problems while ignoring his own. Ivanov is a mere warm-up act for this short-tempered, overweight, divorced and thoroughly chaotic crime-buster who's all set to make Rebus, Morse and the CSI crew look like a bunch of pussycats.
Despite this, Wallander is the sort of basically decent, liberal character you love all the same. Things happen to Wallander, and they're not all good. Since making his debut in 1989 – Mankell has explained that he created the character out of a need to combat the creeping xenophobia in Sweden and that, since xenophobia is a crime, he needed to invent a police officer – the poor chap's been sued for police brutality, been shot and stabbed, and has even gunned down an innocent man by accident. But as success took over, so Mankell found himself writing more widely in subsequent Wallander novels about the overall political and social situation in Sweden throughout the 1990s. The result is that Wallander's small home town of Ystad, 60km south-east of Malmo – the setting for all the stories – becomes as evocative and distinctive a terrain as Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles or Carl Hiaasen's Florida. Only with worse weather.
Branagh, who is also a producer on the series, is clearly hoping that Wallander will do for his movie profile what Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison did for Helen Mirren's: catapult him right back to the top of the poster billing. Executive producer Andy Harries has already invoked Prime Suspect as the template, with Wallander coming back on our small screens every two or three years, though Branagh himself is keeping schtum.
In the first of the three dramas, Branagh's Wallander becomes embroiled in a chain of sexual and emotional abuse that suggests a crash course in Strindberg and the darker films of Ingmar Bergman. You'd have thought that Branagh would be more interested in emulating Ingrid than Ingmar, but he could be about to spring the biggest surprise of a career that has never received its due for being full of them anyway.
Because of his shooting-star precocity – and also the insolence of making that Henry V film – Branagh was dubbed the new Olivier. This misnomer at least took account of his unfashionably "have it all" approach to theatre that famously ran into the buffers when he fell out with the way things were run at the Royal Shakespeare Company; he'd been a sensational Laertes to Roger Rees's volatile Hamlet in 1984 before playing Henry V in a great stage production by Adrian Noble. He went off from the RSC, forming his own company in order to play Hamlet and do other things, before reclaiming his RSC crown as the melancholy Dane in a 1992 Prince Charles-influenced performance of the reluctant avenger.
Ironically, this Hamlet thread – slightly strained by his own less than satisfactory film of the play in 1996 – has been severed by his recent withdrawal from the Jude Law production at the end of the Donmar West End season next year, due to film commitments. Also ironically, it was Branagh who brought Law to the Donmar table in the first place, having directed him in the re-make of Sleuth (another Olivier project first time round). Grandage was always going to direct Michael Sheen as Hamlet, but he was persuaded by Branagh that Law would bring home the Danish bacon.
There's no point in doing anything, really, unless you aim for the top; in the theatre, anyway. Again, this is an unfashionable mantra, and Branagh has refreshingly gone about disproving its caveats. His performances always strike me as paintings on a blank canvas. He starts with such unassuming grace in all he does. Son of a Belfast carpenter, he lived in Reading from the age of nine and suffers, as some of us do, as a life-long supporter of Tottenham Hotspur.
It's very hard to get Branagh to open up on his professional triggers, apart from challenging him on the people he admires. He once told me that he's only ever been tongue-tied in the presence of Gielgud or Paul Scofield – both now dead, both remembered daily by him – but he becomes a gibbering idiot when contemplating the talents and star quality of the great Danny Blanchflower, captain of the Spurs 1961 double-winning team.
The other thing about Branagh is that he emerged from Rada – fully fledged, it seemed, judging by his extraordinary West End debut in Julian Mitchell's Another Country – and instantly became a dominating, creative catalyst in the talents of his own generation, who include Stephen Fry, John Sessions, his first wife Emma Thompson and countless others; yet he wasn't the university wit, or the directorial guru like Peter Hall or Peter Brook. He was just our Ken.
His marriage to Thompson broke up after his affair with Helena Bonham-Carter, and that broke up when he moved on to Hollywood. He eventually settled, appropriately, with an art director, Lindsay Brunnock, on his last great television performance, as the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.
Again, you ask... how does he do these charismatic figures, this simple, fleshy bloke? Olivier used to walk around like a bank manager, his performing persona burning away like a damped down furnace behind the spectacles and the pin-striped suit. It's one of the great mysteries of our time how Branagh turns his undisguised ordinariness into performance gold. And you can be sure that, whatever impact Wallander makes on the national consciousness, some of us will still be sitting there, watching open-mouthed at the strange chemistry of it all.
'Wallander' is being filmed on location in Sweden in the new year
WATCHING THE DETECTIVES... FROM STAGE TO SCREEN
By Alice Jones
Eddie Shoestring (Trevor Eve)
Like all the best faces of the law, the magnificently maned Shoestring has his flaws. The Bristolian IT expert turned to sleuthing after a nervous breakdown, solving mysteries via his phone-in show on Radio West. Fearing typecasting, Eve left Eddie at the top of his game after two series in 1979 and 1980. He's played DS Peter Boyd in 'Waking the Dead' since 2000.
Sleuth Rating: 3/5
DCI Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren)
Mirren's hard-as-nails DCI Tennison may reign in Scotland Yard but her personal life is a mess of addiction, failed relationships and secret abortions. This war between the personal and professional made her a ratings winner. When Mirren reprised the role in 2006, after a seven-year gap, seven million viewers watched her alcohol-and-grief-induced downfall.
Sleuth Rating: 4/5
Hercule Poirot (David Suchet)
With his waxed tache and "little grrrey cells", Poirot is a small-screen fixture. Some find his tics and Belgianisms – 'he has, shall we say, the skeletons in the armoire' – adorable. Others – not least Agatha Christie, who branded her creation a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep" – don't. Recently, Suchet seems to have crossed the line into twee parody.
Sleuth Rating: 2/5
Inspector Morse (John Thaw)
The most cantankerous and cynical of detectives. Despite his pedantry and snobbery, Endeavour Morse is one of television's most popular detectives. He didn't do too badly with the ladies, either. His partnership with the doggedly loyal Sergeant Lewis has been much imitated (not least in the spin-off 'Lewis') but never surpassed.
Sleuth Rating: 5/5