Monday, 25 January 2010

My Wallandergate

Episode image for The Joker

Last weekend a couple of friends mentioned the British Wallander series starring Kenneth Branagh.

'There's a limit to how much bleakness you can stand,' said one.

This coincided with a brief interview with the Swedish author of the crime thrillers, Henning Mankell on BBC's breakfast TV on Friday. Mankell promptly announced that he had at last finished writing any more stories for the angst-ridden detective. But that there were enough plots to cover a further series the BBC are due to film soon.

I can understand how Mankell must by now be a little fed up with his most famous Police Inspector. He has written 13 novels with the same character, with several TV series based on the novels. One can also but wonder how much more crime the small Swedish coastal town, Ystad, can bear.

The Mankel interview on the BBC was hot on the heels of an article commenting on the increased taste for Scandinavian crime fiction by Boris Johnson in the Telegraph. His theory is that, 'because we have grown so used to hearing of the superiority of the Scandinavian system, we are so gripped by the sight of the underbelly of the global goody-goodies.' (The Telegraph) He also points out that blood is brighter in the snow.

A good point.

Boris Johnson did not, however, comment on the another issue that has engaged TV reviewers on the pages of The Telegraph and The Times (among others): which Wallander is better, the English Branagh one or the current Swedish series with Krister Henriksson. Of course the purist feel the Swedish actor who first played Kurt Wallander, Rolf Lassgård, is unbeatable in the role, but I'm talking of more than just the actors.

You may have guessed that I have a problem with the British TV version. AA Gill called those of us who prefer the series made by Yellow Bird Films in collaboration with Svensk Filmindustri, 'sub-title snobs'. If only being a snob was the only reason I didn't like the Branagh version. I'd love to have as many Wallander series on TV as possible. Just as the mysteries by Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell stories make such wonderful viewing.

But there are several reasons why I cannot stand the British version. Firstly, the pace of the narrative of the Swedish TV series is much quicker. In trying to make the series atmospheric, the BBC has slowed the pace to almost nothing. Instead of action, we get wide screen shots of the rape fields or long coastal lines. We know Ystad is situated by the sea, and that the scenery is indeed beautiful, and that weather plays a strong part in the plot as it does in the psyche of the Nordic character, but there is a limit to how much landscape one can take in a programme that is after all supposed to be an action crime thriller.

The BBC series also revolves too singularly around Wallander, making the plot seem monotonous, and the police work incompetent. It's true that in the Swedish series too, we get to follow the personal struggles Inspector Kurt Wallander faces, from his turbulent relationship with his policewoman daughter Linda, to his woman troubles or his father's illness. But we also get the perspective from the other characters such as Svartman, Nyberg and Stefan Lindman. In comparison the BBC series seems greatly indulgent to the central character. One wonders if the script was altered to accommodate the great Shakespearean actor?

My last great objection to the BBC series is the set where the indoor scenes are filmed. Where did all that sixties-style furniture and lighting come from? I went to school in Stockholm in the 1970's and I didn't see any of this kind of stuff there then. Did the set designer
imagine that the dark wood veneer would match how the British think a Swedish police department should look like? I doubt anyone has actually seen this kind of interior design anywhere outside of Shoreditch retro art galleries.

Over to you. Which Wallander do you prefer?