Wallander (part 1) – different visions

Curiously enough, a few times over the last few months I’ve found myself drafting posts referencing Kurt Wallander — the fictional Swedish detective begat in novels by Henning Mankell but spun off onto the small screen. Some references were in passing, some rather central to the essay — often for different reasons and relating to different points. And most of those posts…end up languishing unseen on my hard drive as another, more pressing (or pertinent) theme crops up.

So today I thought — heck, why not just tie all those threads together into a couple of Wallander posts?

Now, as regular visitors to this blog know, my sometimes incessantly reiterated theme is about Canadian film, TV, and Canadian identity in pop culture…so a post about a fictional Swedish detective might seem odd. But, firstly, I’ve often said I wanted to leave the door open for a wider range of topics and posts…and secondly, it does tie in, in various ways (hence why, as I said, I’ve actually found myself alluding to it a time or two before, regardless of whether those references ever were up-loaded).

So — disclaimer time. I’m not an “expert” on the character or series. While others have been fans for decades, I’m not sure I’d ever heard of him prior to literally a few months ago. But that’s kind of the point of this post: my personal discovery of the character, his various incarnations, and the light it shines on various aspects of cultural and national identity.

I first stumbled upon Wallander in some British TV movies starring Kenneth Branagh. Instead of adapting them to a U.K. setting, the idea was to retain the Swedish idiom, Branagh and the U.K. cast playing Swedes in Sweden. And an interesting decision was to have the actors retain their British accents, even using British colloquialisms, rather than adopting faux-Swedish accents (like The Muppets’ Swedish chef!) or speaking in that patented “formal” speech pattern often used to indicate characters are speaking in a foreign tongue. It’s an interesting technique. On one hand one could quibble and say, surely you’re losing the flavour — the fun — of the “foreign” setting by doing that. On the other hand, you are being truer to the setting. After all, Swedes don’t “hear” a Swedish accent — and they certainly don’t see sub-titles when they talk to each other. So by having the characters talk in “normal” colloquial English (at least normal for a U.K. audience), in a sense they are allowing the English-speaking audience to fully immerse themselves in, and become one with, the Swedish setting in a way that wouldn’t happen if the characters spoke with light accents. It also allows for slight subtexts: an actor can adopt a working class accent, or a posh accent, that would be lost if they were using generic Swedish accents.

(Just as an aside: the BBC did something similar with the Zen films starring Rufus Swell — mysteries set in Italy, with a mainly English cast retaining English accents and colloquialisms. Although in that case, a few of the actors were Italian with Italian accents — such as Caterina Murino as the romantic interest. That contrast didn’t distract me, having grown up watching all those old internationally produced mini-series of days gone by. Anyway, I just thought I’d reference the Zen films because, though they proved less successful than the Wallander films, they were quite enjoyable as well — a little lighter in tone than Wallander — and I figured I’d give ’em a plug).

Anyway…I enjoyed the Branagh films I saw, finding them atmospheric, brooding and slow-moving (in a good way) mysteries.

And then I discovered that, prior to the British version, the character had already seen life on Swedish television. Actually, twice. First played by Rolf Lassgård in a series of films that, like the Branagh films, were based on actual novels (though, funnily, according to some reviews, the Swedish adaptations were less faithful to the source novels than the British films!). And then played by Krister Henriksson in a series of movies utilizing original plots and mysteries.

So, my curiosity now piqued, I was able to track down some of the sub-titled Henriksson films. The Lassgård films are apparently not as well circulated in English, though that means I don’t have to worry about an overlap, or a repetition of plots.

And you know what? I liked the Henriksson films as well — a lot. Theses were mainly from, I guess, the second “season” of films — and there was some suggestion they were deliberately trying to be a little more political, giving the stories a bit of an edge beyond just whodunit?, dealing with themes of vigilantism, prejudice, law v. justice, terrorism, etc. And the ones I saw were well made, compelling dramas — if not based on actual novels, the writers did a good job of fooling ya, ’cause they felt smart and thoughtful, and more than just TV thrillers.

And as for that sub-title thing: well, there are the two camps. People who don’t like sub-titles…and people who turn their nose up at people who don’t like sub-titles.

But, honestly, I can see the middle ground.

Sub-titles can be a pain, and a strain, both on the eyes and mentally. They flip by too fast, they are too small or too hard to see. And also, to be honest, it may be the films themselves. Sometimes I suspect critics will fool themselves into thinking a movie is better than it is because of the sub-titles. Or the movie itself is a pretentious Art House drama and the audience is restless, not because of the subtitles, but just because the movie itself is “difficult”.

But sometimes, a sub-titled movie goes down like a smooth glass of milk.

A while back I had picked up a movie at the library called Farewell — I had not heard of it and didn’t look at the back cover too closely (sometimes the fun is not knowing all the details before you start watching). It was based on some real case of European espionage and the cast included Americans Fred Ward, Willem Dafoe and Diane Kruger (a German actress but who has appeared in a lot of English-language films) and the cover featured somebody who looked like the guy from Grey’s Anatomy. I popped it into my DVD and instantly realised my mistake: it was a sub-titled French film. Ward and DaFoe were in it, speaking English, but in small parts. Kruger — Kruger, curiously, was barely more than an extra (leading one to wonder if it was made before she started to become successful). And the guy who looked like Patrick Dempsey? He wasn’t Patrick Dempsey. Now I watch sub-titled films often (usually in regards to my hobby of watching Canadian, and so French-Canadian, films), but sometimes I do find them tiring, or like I’m squinting at the screen. I had picked up this film to kick back and relax and so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother. Still, it was in the machine, it was playing, so I decided to give it a few minutes.

Long story short? A good movie and fully engrossing. Quirkily funny and low-key, though getting darker and more sombre as it goes. If you like cold war dramas and understated John LeCarre thrillers, you’ll probably enjoy Farewell (a.k.a. L’affaire Farewell). But above all, you barely notice the sub-titles — the performances and the story held you, and the titles were clear and easy to follow.

I’ve often thought the sign of a good sub-titled movie is one where, thinking back on it, you can barely remember whether it was sub-titled, or whether the actors were speaking English. Thinking back on Farewell, I have to remind myself they were speaking with sub-titles, because the scenes, the performances, and the emotions were so well conveyed, you forget there were those little white words acting as a bridge.

And thinking back on the Krister Henriksson Wallander films I saw…I can barely remember that they were sub-titled. My point is, even if you are someone often put off by, or otherwise intimidated, by sub-titles, you should still do yourself a favour and try the films. (And it helps that the titles were big and clearly displayed).

I liked the Branagh films…and I liked the Henriksson films. And since they were telling different stories, I don’t have to choose a favourite.

With that said…they weren’t quite the same.

What’s funny is that the British films seemed steeped in a more stereotypical Swedish-ness than the Swedish ones. Which maybe makes sense. For the British films, part of the gimmick, the selling point when marketing to an audience already satiated watching Midsommer Murders and Inspector Lewis, is the “exotic” milieu. Whereas to the Swedish filmmakers…they don’t need to prove their Swedishness. But the Henriksson films are well told, compelling — if deliberately paced — crime-dramas and mysteries, easily on a par with the better British and American examples. Like the British (and perhaps less like Hollywood) they’re a bit more low-key, less emphasis on car chases and shootouts (though there is some of that), but set within an urban centre comparable to any medium-sized Western city. Whereas the Branagh films are steeped in a kind of (stereotypical) Swedish melancholy and Bergman-esque brooding, introduced by a haunting folk tune (by Australian Emily Barker) and where, despite being city cops, most of the cases seem to involve lonely farm houses and winding country roads, tall grass rippling on into the horizon.

And Branagh’s Wallander is a sad-eyed melancholic who seems to carry the emotional scars of every crime he’s ever investigated, every victim into whose eyes he has gazed. At times he can seem so emotionally brittle you’d swear he’s one slamming door or back firing car away from collapsing into a fetal position under his desk. Even his co-workers sometimes seeming to look at him, less as their fearless leader, and more with compassionate condescension, as a beloved uncle who’s sliding into senility (though he seems a little less fragile in the most recent batch of films). Whereas Henriksson’s Wallander seems made of slightly sterner stuff. He’s certainly dour and introverted (at one point he’s not sure why another character acts surprised that she caught him smiling…once) but seems more adjusted, more in control of himself and his investigations.

Branagh’s Wallander can, at times, border on unrealistic (I mean, his superiors really should order him to take sick leave) but he’s perhaps the more interesting, the more intriguing, of the two. That isn’t a knock against Henriksson — I love his performance, its subtleties. I’m just saying the part he’s been given is, perhaps, more conventional than Branagh’s.

But as I say: both versions I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the films I’ve seen. They are enough the same that, if you like one, you’ll probably like the other (it’s not like in one Wallander is played as a wisecracking ladies man) — indeed, I can find myself getting a bit confused, waiting for a supporting actor to come around the corner in the British films, only to then remember he’s from the Swedish series — yet enough different that you can enjoy them both, and not simply choose a favourite and stick to it. Ironically, maybe it’s the very switching of hats (as I perceive it) that is the appeal. The British films can seem a little different from other British mystery series because of this brooding, deliberately European vibe…while the Swedish ones can over come the sub-titles simply because they seem so comfortably familiar, like a British or American whodunit.

So, of course, having seen two interpretations, and enjoyed both, obviously the next step was to go to the fount itself — the original novels by Henning Mankell (well, English translations). And I ended up reading The Troubled Man (ironically, the “last” Wallander novel…so an odd place to jump in, but it was the one that was at the library). Because it’s set later in Wallander’s life, and the character suffering the depredations of early old age, it may not be as definite a presentation of the character. (Detective novels being perhaps unusual among genres in that they often do tend to acknowledge the passage of time and the hero can age quite dramatically over the course of the series, from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot to, well, Wallander). But going by it, the novel Wallander seems somewhere in the middle between Branagh and Henriksson. Funnily, Henriksson popped to mind as a physical embodiment of the character, but that may just be because I had seen his films more recently. But the novel Wallander doesn’t seem quite as damaged and emotionally brittle as Branagh (at one point described as being basically happy) yet there is certainly an aspect of brooding melancholy (dealing with his life’s twilight) and he perhaps doesn’t seem quite as rock solid, as confident as Henriksson’s version of the character.

The novel itself, I’ll confess, I was a bit mixed on (I’ll avoid spoilers). The investigation itself was a bit slow, partly because it was supposed to be as much about Wallander as about his case. A major twist I could kind of see coming early (I’ll come back to that in my next post) and perhaps most annoying, Mankell deliberately leaves much of it unexplained by the end, with even Wallander admitting he didn’t know what such-and-such a clue meant, or why so-and-so did something else. One or two such things can be excused, as artistic license when the author is trying to create a sense of a murky, shadowy world (the story dealing, atypically for Wallander, with espionage) but not when so much of it is that way. Basically by the end, 80 percent of the story was essentially red herrings to pad the chapters (in the sense that we never get satisfactory explanations for them). Given this was Mankell’s “last” Wallander novel…you wonder if he was just getting sick and tired of the whole thing! So it’s a book I enjoyed while I was reading it. But seems kind of lazy, and my memory is turning a bit sour when I actually stop and reflect back on it and I realize how contrived and manipulative it was. (And yet according to some reviews, fans seemed to like it — as opposed to suggesting it was a lesser entry in the series). Alas.

Still, back to character himself…

So, again, all three versions are enough alike that they certainly aren’t radically different, or irreconcilable personas…even as they aren’t so similar that if they weren’t called “Kurt Wallander” you might not automatically realize they were the same hero.

After all, that seems to be the nature of modern detective heroes. Gone are the days of the singular eccentrics and quirky amateurs, the Holmes, Poirots, and Wolfes. Most detective novels feature more realistic heroes….who tend to settle into similar grooves. Professional police men (as opposed to amateurs), middle-age males, iconoclastic introverts who live for the job; have never been married, or are divorced, and with tense, or even estranged, relationships with any kids. Given to drinking too much, and their chief hobby is a music collection. Usually classical or jazz, sometimes classic rock. Honestly, a lot of detectives in novel series can kind of blur into each other (maybe that’s the appeal to fans — they kind of form an amalgamated super series where Wallander and Rubin and Morse all kind of become facets of the same hero — the Detective Eternal to paraphrase Michael Moorcock’s old fantasy conceit of the Champion Eternal which allowed him to justify the similarity between his various sword & sorcery characters). Likewise, female detectives also follow certain templates.

But I digress…

So let’s get back to Wallander. And the lessons therein. I mean, sure, there’s the simple point I’m making which is, if you like detective and suspense movies, more brooding and cerebral than action packed, you should definitely seek out the Branagh films. And if you like them, then do yourself a favour and seek out the Henriksson films (I haven’t seem the Rolf Lassgård films) — and don’t let the notion of sub-titles put you off because, honestly, five minutes in you won’t notice you’re reading sub-titles. And there are the original novels, too, of course (hopefully that hold together better than did The Troubled Man).

But, as I’ve said, my blog is often concerned with other themes than simply whether something makes a good way to kill a few hours.

So we’ll pause there, and return to Wallander next time — but as an example of something wider. We’ll pull on our mukluks and jump into the snow bank of cultural considerations, and how (or if) these Swedish set stories relate to my recurring themes of Canadian pop culture and identity…

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