Saturday, June 23, 2012

Inner Still Life:Wallander Season 2 (2010)

I finally got around to watching to Season 2 of the Wallander, the British series devoted to the outer and especially inner life of novelist Henning Mankell's perennially depressed Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander (the great Kenneth Branagh in this version).  I know some have rapped this series as a bore, but I find it fascinating--every glum and gloomy moment of it.  The mystery plots are interesting (if not, to be sure, Golden Age level in complexity); but what strikes me most--besides those expansive exterior landscapes and intriguing interior spaces so stunningly shot in bleak, desaturated sepia tones--is the detailed portrait of our moody hero's personal emotional life of travail: an inner still life of his troubled soul, if you will.  Kurt reaches new depths of depression in Series 2.  At times he makes the late Inspector Morse--arguably television's pathbreaking modern morose police detective--look positively giddy.

our hero, depressed

In all three of the Series 2 episodes, Kurt's personal problems neatly dovetail with the criminal problem he is currently investigating.  Some have found this too pat, but I thought it made a splendid way limning Kurt's inner life.

In the first episode, "Faceless Killers," an elderly Swedish farming couple is tortured and murdered. In an effective nod to the Golden Age "dying message" gambit associated most strongly with Ellery Queen, the wife before expiring manages to whisper "F-" in answer to Kurt's query who did this?  Kurt's investigating team leaps to the conclusion that this "F-" means "foreigners" and soon enough this detail is leaked to the press, spawning a series of violent, escalating reprisals against immigrant laborers, culminating in a fatal shooting.  Now Kurt has more deadly crime to investigate and he feels to blame for even mentioning this whole dying message business.

Kurt beholds a pale horse--
oh, that can't be good!
Meanwhile, Kurt's daughter, Linda, is dating a Syrian doctor and accusing Dad of racism because he seems insufficiently enthusiastic about her boyfriend.  Kurt is feeling guilty about this too!  Also, for good measure, Kurt's father, Povel, has rapidly onsetting Alzheimer's. Povel's increasingly erratic behavior includes vituperation of Kurt, whom Povel feels has abandoned him.

The racial revenge murder is solved through straightforward police work, with a bit of intuition on Kurt's part.  More interesting is Kurt's solution to the original farmhouse murders.

In Episode 2, "The Man Who Smiled," Kurt, wracked with guilt over events from Episode 1 (part of this I personally had trouble empathizing with, but that may just be me) has turned in his badge and dropped out of things to go wallow in misery in the country. When a friend of his asks him to investigate the death of his father (the police are writing it off as an accident), Kurt refuses.

Next thing you know, the son is dead too--supposedly a suicide--and Kurt has yet more to feel guilty about!  But now he's back on the force, investigating a dark corporate conspiracy. At the same time, he must deal with recriminations from both father and granddaughter over his flight into the country.

Seeing Kurt try to shake himself out of depression was quite fascinating.  As one of his concerned (disgusted?) colleagues points out, Kurt's literally sweating all over at one point. I have to say I admired Kenneth Branagh's physical commitment to his performance.  He marches into his office, takes off his shirt, looking decidedly pasty (and really a bit doughy actually), and starts patting his sweaty pits with the curtains.  Talk about giving "deglam" performance!  Bravo, Sir Kenneth!*

our hero, still depressed (and probably kind of smelly at this point)

This episode also has a good subplot involving an disgraced ex-cop (a moving Vincent Regan).  I wasn't sure whether the title referred to this character or the smirking millionaire philanthropist played by Rupert Graves (Lestrade from Sherlock). Any road, this is another engrossing installment.

Finally, there is Episode 3, "The Fifth Woman."  The plot of this one, which involves torture serial slayings of men, reminded me in some ways of The Mermaids Singing, Val McDermid's influential 1995 serial killer novel.  Mankell's novel came out a year after McDermid's, so could there have a specific influence here?  I don't know, but on the whole I think this the best of the three episodes.

Again Wallander's personal situation meshes with the crime problem he is investigating (I can't go into too much detail here because of spoilers).  The climax is emotionally affecting, though probably rather unrealistic if you think about it for very long.  In the coda, things take a bit of a promising turn for Kurt, finally.  Maybe he'll be able to start sleeping nights in a comfortable bed, rather than snatch fitful minutes of sleep in unpromisingly angular modern chairs!

I look forward to finding out just what happens to Kurt Wallander in Season 3.

you just know this is going to be bad news....
*Note: My friend Doug Greene, Anglophile and dean of American mystery scholars, informs me that Kenneth Branagh was knighted just a few days before this article was posted.  Corrected accordingly, sir!  And congratulations, Sir Kenneth (maybe a knighthood would cheer up Kurt Wallander)!

1 comment:

  1. Good one Curt and glad it's not just me looking forward to season 3 - of the three episodes, the final one, with its hopeful coda, is the one that deviated the most from the source novel and I did initially wonder if this was meant to give us a bit of hope in case he didn't come back again!