A Few Words for Wallander

Some time in the winter, I fired up the Netflix machine and watched the first few episodes of Wallander with Kenneth Branagh. It was occasionally interesting, but I found Branagh's lugubrious, blubbery, hangdog acting insufferable. It's rare that I like Branagh in anything, so I decided to try out the other Wallander that was available for streaming: the 2009/10 Swedish series starring Krister Henriksson.

This week, I finally let myself watch the last two episodes available. I haven't loved a TV show this much in ages, and the final episode of series two is heartwrenching, though the last scenes are sweet and touching. I was moved halfway through the episode to send a frantic text to a friend (who, though she hasn't watched the show, has been amused by my growing obsession): "They killed Wallander's dog! The heartless Swedes!" I was, it turned out, jumping to conclusions and slandering an entire nation. But I have never been moved to send a text to anybody while in the midst of watching a TV show before.

Being somewhat analytically inclined, I have been trying to figure out the nature of my fondness for Wallander. It's not the stories. They're generally well conceived, but hardly masterpieces of narrative genius, and, as with most mystery/crime shows, I forget the details of the plots within moments of finishing. I watched a few more of the Branagh Wallanders, but they were even less tolerable after having watched the Henrikssons. I read the first of Henning Mankell's Wallander novels, Faceless Killers, and struggled to rouse much interest throughout. I watched the adaptation of Faceless Killers that was the first of the first Swedish series, starring Rolf Lassgård in the title role. It was very long.

What is it, then, about the Henriksson Wallanders that so captivated me? Obviously, casting has a lot to do with it — Henriksson portrays world-weariness without letting it make the character passive or the acting leaden. Wallander's flaws are clear, but so is his professional competence. He's emotionally distant, which helps him in his work, but he recognizes that this emotional distance is also the source of his loneliness (which is what makes so many of the scenes in the final episode of series 2 so powerful — over the course of the show, we've seen enough for the sentimentality inherent in a few single shots [a dog leash, Wallander and Katarina asleep on a couch] to feel earned and poignant). He's awkward with people, and yet insightful about people. He adores Katarina and obviously wants a deeper relationship with her, but doesn't know how to initiate this, which leads him at times to anger, at times to self-pity, at times to hopelessness, at times to an affecting awkwardness.

Henriksson's remarkable performance, then, is certainly at the core of what makes Wallander work so well for me, but the casting overall is really excellent. Lena Endre portrays Katarina with precise control, giving us a character who is putting all of her energy into keeping her life together after a difficult divorce, a move to a place her children don't like, a job that to some extent she may think is beneath her and yet which also provides endless challenges, etc. And yet while all this is clear, the character is not cold: we can see and sympathize with Wallander's fascination with her, his fondness for her.

Both Henriksson and Endre thus achieve an extremely difficult task for actors: portray characters who, for one reason or another, are emotionally distant or repressed, and yet who are ultimately people we can really care about. (Such an achievement requires the sort of restrained, minimalist acting that is the very opposite of Kenneth Branagh's approach.)

I also found myself growing quickly fond of all the other regular characters, particularly the two trainees, Isabelle (Nina Zanjani) and Pontus (Sverrir Gudnason). My biggest complaint about the writing of the series is that too many of the writers found it necessary to put at least one of the main characters in major jeopardy in every episode, which made it seem that being on the Ystad police force is among the most dangerous occupations in the world. (This is a typical problem for mystery shows. For many years, a little town in Maine was the most lethal place on Earth.) The writers had a special fondness for bringing mayhem to poor Isabelle and Pontus, but though I was frustrated by this, I was also completely hooked every single time, scaring my cats with exclamations of, "No, not Pontus!" and "No, not Isabelle!" It's the magic of serial storytelling: if we become fond of a character, we are reborn a sucker every minute. I put off watching the last two episodes in the series because having looked at its IMDB page I knew that Isabelle and Pontus were not in the last episode, which made me fear they would be killed or fired or ... who knows. I wasn't sure I wanted to watch a Wallander without them. Episode 12 was certainly rough, but, as with so many of the episodes, the final moments achieved real poignancy.

Which brings us to the other elements, beyond casting, that make Wallander so effective for me: pacing and tone. The shots and scenes are stately without being static. That's quite an accomplishment for a show with different writers, directors, cinematographers, and editors for many of the episodes. There are certainly some differences in style, but there is a unity of tone and pace, and the tone and pace match the approach of Henriksson and Endre to their characters: restrained, yet not without feeling. This is clear in the cinematography, too: the Branagh Wallander famously and ostentatiously used the Red One digital camera — but at least some of the Henriksson series 2 episodes were also shot on Red cameras (after the first episode, which was shot on 35mm for theatrical presentation). There are some gorgeous shots in the BBC Wallander, but there are also many that feel like the cinematographic equivalent of a little kid jumping up and down and screaming for attention. The only time I had hesitations about the photographic choices in the Swedish Wallander was episode 11 ("The Heritage"), where an extremely gauzy filter is used to create a sense of a heat wave. It's effective at achieving that, but also unsubtle and soon quite tedious. The story and characters are compelling, though.

The appeal of series 2 of the Henriksson Wallander for me could be summed up, then, as the appeal of restraint in the face of melodrama. The plots are full of conspiracy, murder, explosions, kidnappings, assaults — peril after peril. The main characters are a small group and yet are constantly besieged, beaten, bloodied, bombed, and shot. People are saved, but only at the last minute. These are conventions of this sort of story, and we accept them because the kind of pleasure they provide is much of what we seek from such stories. (If we didn't, we'd watch Zodiac or Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.) Tone, pacing, and affect become essential to the audience's response to the melodrama, because there are, at the most basic level, two approaches: go with the melodrama, highlighting it with dramatic music and emotive acting and gaudy photography and brash editing — the cinematic equivalent of leaving no noun unmodified; or the approach taken here: if your story is over the top, then hold back with everything else.

It reminds me of common advice to actors: Don't play a character crying; play a character trying hard not to cry. That's the approach of the Swedish Wallander, and it's an approach I'm greatly sympathetic to, though I hardly think it's the only way to do things — Domino is one of my favorite movies of the century so far. The genius of Domino is to say, "Oh, you want melodrama? We'll give you f-in' melodrama!!!"

The episodes of the BBC Wallander that I watched seemed to be trying for the kind of evocative restraint found in the acting and construction of the Swedish show, but for me they ended up being more leaden than restrained — long takes and endless shots of people brooding (or weeping or mumbling or drooling) are quite the opposite of restraint. Again, I think of that great advice for actors about crying (or playing drunk, injured, etc) that I mentioned above, and why it's so great: because it gives action to the moment. Trying not to cry is a richer action than just crying, and it conveys a more complicated experience to the audience, one that, in fact, often produces emotional effects. This gets at why I often found the endings of the Henriksson Wallanders so powerful: despite all the social and personal struggles, failures, and disappointments it portrays, the show strives valiantly against inevitable tears.

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