Wallander: Swede dreams are made of this

Kenneth Branagh's 'Wallander' captivated TV viewers. Now, as BBC4 shows the Scandinavian original, Geoffrey Macnab examines their different emphases on detectives, darkness and alienation

Anyone wanting to play Inspector Wallander has to pass the soiled-underwear test. There is a revealing passage in Faceless Killers, the first of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander crime novels, in which the Swedish writer describes his permanently exhausted, world-weary detective bolting down a hamburger so quickly that it gives him diarrhoea.

"As he sat on the toilet he noticed that he ought to change his underwear," Mankell writes, providing his readers with just a little more detail than they probably want or need, but also making it very clear that Wallander isn't one of those glib, telegenic detectives who never has to worry about indigestion, needy relatives or tax returns.

BBC4's decision to broadcast several episodes of the hit Swedish Wallander series has given British audiences the chance to compare and contrast Wallanders. How does the original, local, Swedish series stand up to the award-winning detective dramas starring Kenneth Branagh?

"They are quite different," the series' Swedish producer Ole Sondberg says. "Where they're really different is that Branagh really focused on the dark side of the character, whereas if you see the Swedish series, we are trying to achieve more humour, more lightness, We were very afraid that the character would be too dark."

Both Branagh and Krister Henriksson, who plays the detective in the original Swedish series, look as if they would probably pass the underwear test. They've gone to great lengths to cultivate plenty of stubble and red rings under their eyes, suggesting that they neither get much sleep nor have much time to devote to personal hygiene. In "Sidetracked", the first episode of the British Wallander, the detective is visited by his daughter. Separated from his wife, he is living in a cluttered, messy apartment. "God, this place is squalid," the daughter exclaims. Henriksson's Wallander is dark-haired, slimmer and not quite as unkempt as Branagh. He is a devotee of opera music, which is just how Mankell describes him. (There is no Verdi in the Branagh version, apparently on the grounds that listening to classical music would make him too much like Inspector Morse, whose spiritual heir he seems to be – at least in the eyes of the commissioning editors.)

The irony is that the Swedish Wallander plays much more like a traditional British detective drama than its British counterpart. Henriksson plays him as a detective in the mould of Taggart: a dour, taciturn figure, albeit with a morbid sense of humour and an underlying humanity. Confronted with a seemingly motiveless double murder, in which one of the victims was his childhood sweetheart, in "The Brothers", he and his team probe away patiently for clues. His own emotions don't cloud his professionalism. One trait immediately apparent is his liberalism. He deplores the kneejerk racism of some of his compatriots, especially those among the wealthy elite.

The British Wallander is far more stylised and cinematic in conception. It lacks the sense of local identity that characterises the Swedish version. Given that it was made in Sweden by British actors and technicians, this was probably inevitable. The programme-makers try to bolster their Swedish credentials by referring to the assassination of Olaf Palme and including lines like "the world now recognises that Sweden stands for a little more than just Björn Borg, Abba and a bit of skinny-dipping in mountain lakes." Even so, when all the actors, whether they're playing cops or criminals, speak English with the same neutral, middle-class BBC-style accent, it never seems that we are really experiencing life on the streets of Ystad ("a nest of pirates and fraudsters," as Strindberg once described it.)

The stylised quality is intensified by Anthony Dod Mantle's brilliant but idiosyncratic cinematography. Dod Mantle, who has worked closely with maverick film-makers like Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, shot the Wallander dramas using the Red One digital camera. The visual effect is striking.

Often, in TV detective dramas, the emphasis is on close-ups. We see the hairs in Ken Stott's nostrils or on John Thaw's furrowed brow looming out of the small screen as the sleuth wrestles with the latest mystery. In Wallander, as shot by Dod Mantle, attention isn't just concentrated on the sweaty landscape of the detective's face. We also see spectacular sequences of fields and cityscapes. For example, during the very first moments of "Sidetracked", we see a young girl fleeing through a field of yellow, head-high crops before setting herself on fire in front of Wallander.

Branagh's performance is fascinating, if very over-determined. He first met Mankell during the Ingmar Bergman Week on the island of Faro in the summer of 2007. At times, his Wallander seems less like a hard-bitten Swedish detective than the anguished priest played by Gunnar Bjornstrand in Bergman's Winter Light. Just as that priest is struggling with his faith, Branagh's detective is in similar conflict about his profession. Each fresh crime he encounters takes a huge psychic toll on him. Branagh has talked of "the ongoing empathy, the open-wound quality" that Wallander has developed in the face of all the suffering he has seen. He is not the typical hard-bitten detective in a police procedural drama who reacts to each new crime, however grotesque, as if it is just in a day's work.

Audiences in Sweden, Britain and elsewhere, respond to Wallander because he does seem such a vulnerable and grounded figure. He is a middle-aged man whose life is always at risk of falling apart. The detective is estranged from his wife and has a tempestuous relationship with both his daughter and his elderly father.

In the wake of the success of the Wallander TV dramas and of the Stieg Larsson film adaptation, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (made by the same production company), there has been much speculation about why the world is currently so obsessed with Scandinavian crime fiction. Is it the light? Is it the long winters, or the tendency toward introspection? Is it the interior design?

The irony, as far as Ole Sondberg is concerned, is that, in the Swedish Wallander, there has been a self-conscious attempt to introduce more humour and to escape from the stereotype of gloomy Swedes. He suggests that the two series work best in very different markets. For example, the US has no interest in the Swedish Wallander whereas the much darker Branagh version has done extremely well with American audiences.

Arguably, the success of the Mankell and Larsson books isn't really to do with Sweden at all. The themes and characters have a universality of appeal. These are stories as much about the personal lives of their characters as the crimes they are ostensibly investigating. In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the detective is a rebellious young woman who dresses like a punk. In Wallander, it's a dysfunctional middle-aged man. Both have a crusading quality about them. For all the stresses in their domestic lives, they're relentless when pursuing a new case.

Mankell has given the British version of Wallander his blessing. What he liked was precisely that it wasn't a carbon copy of the Swedish series. "After 15 seconds, I knew these guys are going in their own direction," he said after first watching the Branagh version.

Yellow Bird, the Swedish production company behind the Wallander TV series, hasn't discounted the possibility of a big-screen version. "Nothing is out of the question," Sondberg says.

In the meantime, three more Branagh Wallanders are being filmed in Sweden this summer. There are also some fresh Swedish Wallanders on the way. All the evidence suggests there is room for both. Rather than one series eclipsing its rival, they seem to have enhanced each other's visibility. For now, at least, Branagh and Krister Henriksson look set to march hand in hand. The world can't get enough of crusty, world-weary Swedish cops with personal-hygiene issues. It doesn't seem to matter which language they speak.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own