Tuesday, May 12, 2009

TV review: Moody 'Wallander' grows on you

Kenneth Branagh as the tortured Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander.

By John Thomason

The BBC’s three-episode adaptation of Wallander is a series that, like its titular protagonist, refuses to endear itself to the viewer.

It wears its acquired taste-ness like a policeman’s badge of pride, daring you to endure its stifling camerawork and pretentious editing until the show’s subtle menace and psychological weight finally hit you like a blow to the head.

Police detective Kurt Wallander may be a foreign name to many U.S. viewers, but Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s fictional sleuth is an international sensation, popular in more than 30 countries. Sidetracked, which aired last Sunday on PBS, is Wallander’s United States debut, and it barely cracks the surface of the character’s litany of problems. From previous literary and television incarnations, we know he’s an insomniac and a heavy drinker, plagued by a lousy diet, a lack of exercise, weight problems and diabetes. His wife left him, and his artist father is suffering from dementia.

Of all of these character traits, only the last one – his father’s developing Alzheimer’s – is significantly addressed in Sidetracked, but we can assume that as the English-language series progresses, a more complex figure of the detective will emerge.

His first case is a grisly one involving a murderer whose victims – a former politician and TV personality, an art dealer, a deadbeat father and a white-collar criminal – are all of ill repute. In the tradition of Halloween, the killer is unseen, with the camera shooting his blunt, object-to-skull killings from his point of view. We learn later that he’s been scalping his victims. It all ties somehow into the show’s striking, unforgettable opening sequence, with Wallander rushing – too late – to save a 15-year-old girl from self-immolation in the middle of a brilliant yellow field of rapeseed.

It’s a sequence, like many early on in Sidetracked, that is memorable in spite of its peculiar stylistic quirks, not because of them. In a style especially off-putting to viewers not accustomed to Scandinavian or Eastern European chamber dramas, director Philip Martin shoots everything in tight, claustrophobic close-ups and fuzzy cutaways. Just because the show is set in Sweden doesn’t mean it needs to look like Cries and Whispers.

In general, we’re given impressions rather than entire pictures, resulting in some editing and staging choices that border on the inept (there’s so much activity being cut off at the frame’s edges that I began to wonder if the series wasn’t shot in ‘Scope and hacked to pan-and-scan). Like Lars von Trier’s unwatchable experiment The Boss of It All, it sometimes feels like the show’s arbitrary editing rhythms were programmed randomly by a computer.

You begin to wonder if Martin isn’t pulling one over on you – if you aren’t just sitting through a standard-issue whodunit glossed over with a self-imposing arthouse sheen. But as one compelling scene after another emerges -- whether it’s Wallander interrogating a reticent prostitute at her daughter’s basketball game or learning of his father’s disease after the old man gets into a fistfight at a supermarket – the film-school showiness of Martin’s direction becomes less noticeable. 

So, too, does Kenneth Branagh seem to wake up from the somnolent haze of Sidetracked’s opening stanzas to suggest the depth of problems we’re sure to encounter in later episodes. What at first seems like a lack of presence reveals itself to be another effortlessly subtle performance of quiet obsession from an actor who’s embodied many.

The shows conveys a life-stifling work ethic that almost surely drove Wallander’s wife away and continues to taint his relationships with those close to him. As his investigation touches partly on the relations between fathers and sons, just watch how the guilt of Wallander’s neglect of his own father creeps to the front of his psyche.

Wallander’s personality is painted just enough to provide enough distinction while most of his personal life is kept, appropriately enough, a mystery. I left Sidetracked feeling like I wanted to know more about Wallander, and I’ll tune in again. 

You may not feel the same. The show is filmed in such a deliberately alienating way that a few Altman and Kieslowski films are practically required viewing before embarking on it.

Wallander won’t come to you, so be prepared to come to it.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Firewall, part two of the Wallander series, airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on PBS. 

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