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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent