There are certain genres – the gritty police drama, the quirky family comedy, the hospital drama, the teen soap opera, – that have been done so many times that originality is both vital and difficult to produce. The lone detective struggling with personal issues, falls into that category of warmed over clichés.
Audiences have always been fascinated by solitary minds whose brilliance at solving crimes creates unique and quirky personalities. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Cristie’s Poirot are early examples of this. The list of famous gumshoes is enormous and each has its following (Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple, Jules Maigret). The list of films is too long and varied but think of well-known series dominated by a single crime-fighting mind –Murder She Wrote, Veronica Mars, Cadfael, Inspector Morse, Rockford Files, Magnum P.I., Kojak, Father Dowling, Monk, and the list goes on. Most of these shows owe a good deal to Columbo, for breaking away from clean-cut cops and spotlighting single sleuths who struggle with the social order.
The idea has been redone so often that the most successful detectives are not in line at all with their predecessors. House has taken the detective genre to fight disease, not crime. No series has done a better job of shattering clichés about the detective than Dexter.
So Wallander, like any new detective show, has a lot of work ahead of it to show that it is original. All of these shows rely on two main elements, an engrossing plot, and a lead personality out of the mainstream enough that we are kept interested. Wallandar, based on the detective books by Swedish writer Henning Mankel.
Wallander creates a melancholy world with bleached colors and introverted emotionally depressed characters. The weight of existence and looming reminders of mortality seem to haunt everyone, especially Kurt Wallander whose father is dying and investigates violent crimes and deaths. His avoidance of close relationships, disregard of his personal appearance, and existential gloom get redeemed by his occasional acts of bravery where he puts his life at the mercy of circumstances to save someone he may barely know.
Kenneth Branagh portrays the spiritually exhausted protagonist. While Branagh is believable as a compassionate detective sinking in despair, the story rarely has charm. The plots are taken from the books and well constructed, but at the most inspiring empathy, and only rarely, sympathy.
The skillful cinematography is worth discussing though. There were a few scenes during the second season where I paused it to study the shot. Outstanding. The lighting effectively portrays not the bright colors of blood and the chaotic movement of violence, but the bleached, burdened gloom of its effects. The composition of the scenes even seems to reiterate the sadness of Wallander.
But 90 minutes of despair and angst, without emotional outbursts, complex personalities, or even a glimpse of lightheartedness, makes for a difficult journey. In fact, there is very little there to hold the viewer’s attention, save for mild interest in how Wallander will catch (and try to save) the guilty. In retrospect after viewing, the stories are heartbreaking and touching. Sitting through them, however, sometimes evokes a different emotion. In fact, I find myself checking my email while Wallander is on.
Branagh is a solid professional, though he has had his share of odd roles (Wild Wild West, Frankenstein). He portrays the philosopher-policeman as a complex personality. But something about Wallander prevents him from being sympathetic. Inspector Morse was churlish, but viewers rooted for him. Also, he was a great mind which provided some excuse for his gruffness. Wallander seems to us to be a very very nice person who still manages to push people away from him. The result is a sad figure rather than an intriguing one. Often shots of Wallander alone, rather than providing information (Eric Rohmer films are masterful at this) simply seem to be time-fillers.
The show leaves me torn. Artistically it is very well done. It’s cinematic style is the best thing about it. But the style never seems to go very deep. But despite the fact that it doesn’t always identify with viewers, it is a skillful, artful series which does manage to be unique in one way.
After myriad films and programs with car chases, gun fights, last moment suspense, and death, Wallander shows that violence is always shocking, always destructive, and creates many victims, often including the aggressor. Wallander is a cop who never stops being shocked by crime and one who will try to do his job without more pain and death. (For a great example of the other philosophy, watch Justified).
Overlook some of the police clichés (“But you’re suspended!” “(clenching jaw)…I have to see this through”) and some of the slower points and you can find a philosophic take on crime and an attempt at understanding it.