A New White Knight

“This is not a game for knights,” Philip Marlowe says, glancing at his chessboard in a moment of despair. But Raymond Chandler’s private eye still went down the mean streets of a not very fragrant world where it took a determined man to find any kind of hidden truth, let alone justice. Chandler and his great predecessor Dashiell Hammett also managed to tell their readers some home truths about their society—“where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket”—as well as providing their own distinctive tough-guy entertainment. “When in doubt, have a guy come through a door with a gun,” Chandler wrote.

Modern crime fiction goes much further. Violence has become more explicit and the detectives more morally compromised. But enough white knights survive in mainstream fiction and on film to give us at least a little hope. This is especially true of the adaptations of three of the Wallander novels, broadcast on the BBC in November–December last year, and just released on DVD.

The BBC Wallander series really deserves a carefully researched discussion that compares these new British adaptations with the Swedish versions of all nine of the original novels. Henning Mankell, who created the character of the tormented Swedish police inspector, is a major writer, and both the British and Swedish series have been well received in Europe if not in Australia (where they seem to have been barely noticed). But with the British adaptations now available on DVD, and three of the Swedish telemovies about to be broadcast on SBS (and with Mankell’s novels becoming hugely successful just about everywhere) a more detailed treatment will have to wait.

For Mankell, crime fiction is a reflection of society. His first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers (1991) was written after he returned from Africa to Sweden and “found fascists attacking immigrants”. In Wallander the author created a kind of everyman, overweight, often morose, doggedly determined to get to the bottom of the appalling crimes he is called upon to solve. Like illustrious predecessors such as Philip Marlowe or Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, Wallander is a man of integrity and compassion who pays a terrible price for being a detective and seeing and experiencing human nature at its worst.

Mankell says he does not invent these horrors; one of his cruellest images—swans doused in kerosene and set on fire to fly until consumed by the flames—he found in a newspaper. “Whatever I invent, the reality is much worse.” Indeed the plots of the three novels adapted by the BBC, Sidetracked, Firewall and One Step Behind, could have come from the headlines. In the first, the hunt for a serial killer who scalps his victims uncovers a pattern of sexual abuse that extends into the highest levels of government. Firewall deals with computer terrorism, while in the last film Wallander and his team are almost literally one step behind a murdered colleague as they hunt a psychopathic serial killer.

The novels are immensely detailed, with every possibility weighed and explored, and much of the action takes place inside Wallander’s head. This could easily have lent itself to the kind of measured exploration of every nuance, as in the P.D. James mini-series. Instead writers Richard Cottan and Richard McBrien created concise adaptations that capture the essence of the novels that actually illuminate the originals’ counterpointing of Wallander’s personal life with the cases he investigates. The scriptwriters also emphasise the character’s development as a result of his experiences in each episode, even inventing a better resolution for Wallander’s difficult relationship with his father than Mankell does in the novels. This development of character is important to the author. “Poirot and Miss Marple are fine for what they are,” Mankell says in one of the interviews on the DVD, “but they are the same at the beginning as they are at the end. The experience hasn’t changed them.”

Mankell is so emphatic that one suspects the Wallander books were created as a reaction against the so-called golden age of detective fiction. Certainly Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of the character was far removed from the traditional cop show where, as he puts it, “the detective arrives at the crime scene, his coat collar turned up, and proceeds to squint at the sun, acting”. Here there are no wise cracks, only honest responses to the violence which, in these films, is invariably disturbing and never trivialised.

Branagh’s interpretation of the character is beyond praise. Until recently his greatest achievements have been in translating his stage work to cinema; creating with his Hamlet and Henry V performances that were theatrical yet worked superbly on film. They were some of the best Shakespearean film acting we have ever seen. But to date Branagh has never quite achieved the intimacy, the unguarded quality, which lies at the heart of great screen acting. There were moments in his much-praised portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, where the actor explored the man’s despair when first afflicted with polio, but as FDR was “on” most of the time Branagh was forced to stay with the externals. Now he takes us inside, and instead of finding the emotion in the words, as you must when playing Shakespeare, Branagh does most of his acting between the lines, embodying Wallander rather than playing him. As with all Branagh’s best work this is a multi-layered portrayal. Relationships with colleagues are implied with a look or a gesture—so much so that the films repay repeated viewings to find all the nuances. Branagh has described his playing of Wallander as having an “open wound quality” and the anguish is certainly there; but so is the man’s professionalism, and we are never allowed to forget that he is also dangerous.

Two relationships dominate the series, the one with his father, Povel—splendidly played by David Warner—and his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark). The first is so interesting that some commentators have suggested the character should return, but those familiar with the books know that it was really resolved by the screenwriters at the conclusion of Sidetracked. Linda’s adventures, however, are a continuing story. Some of Mankell’s later novels are Linda Wallander adventures, and the latest Swedish series has her working as a detective for her father. Their relationship has been handled beautifully by the British writers, with a welcome touch of wry humour.

An underlying theme of the books and now this series is the collapse of the liberal dreams of security and equality that dominated the middle of the last century when Sweden was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. A man of the Left, Mankell has no faith in the wisdom of free markets and his books are in part a lament for this lost utopia. To convey this, designer Jacqueline Abrahams decided to utilise architecture and sets that embody the aspirations of the 1960s where the glass and open spaces reflected the country’s aspirations for a more open and egalitarian society.

The setting for the books is Ystad on the southern tip of Sweden, the location for both the Swedish and now the British Wallander series. The BBC films were shot in the long summer, where the landscape and villages (as can be seen in the making of documentaries on the DVD) could easily appear picture-postcard. Cinema-tographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Jan Jonaeus, together with lead director Philip Martin, avoid this by creating a style for the series that combines fluid camera movement and tight framing for the close-ups with sinisterly beautiful shots of the landscapes that make the most of the unique Swedish light. Wallander is the first British television series to use the digital Red One Camera, which creates sharply defined high-definition visuals. I don’t have Blue Ray or an HD screen but to me they have a similar quality to the Panavision70 images of the early 1960s, although here the style is much more intimate. Anyway they must have been some of the richest visuals yet seen on television.

Unfortunately I have only been able to see two of the three Swedish Wallander films being shown on SBS, Blood Ties and The Joker. Neither is based on Mankell’s novels. They come from a longer television series that uses storylines created by Mankell, with Krister Henriksson as Wallander and the late Joanna Sallstrom as Linda. Both are excellent police procedurals, shot on the Ystad locations in winter. Of the two Blood Ties is the more interesting, with a serial killer plot where everyone is hiding a guilty secret.

I have to agree with most of the Swedish critics. The BBC series is far superior, with visuals that would put many current feature films to shame and one of this century’s great actors in the lead. Don’t let this put you off the Swedish series, however. Both of the episodes I saw remain true to Mankell’s characters and are far more original than anything else showing on free-to-air television at present. It is just that the British Wallander is a masterpiece while the Swedish series is just good television.

Neil McDonald writes: I am indebted to Susie Riddell again for allowing me to view the Swedish Wallander films. “Wallander—the Secret” screens on SBS at 9.30 p.m. on April 5. The BBC series of Wallander is available on DVD.

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