For some reason, every time I hear Sweden mentioned I can’t help but recall a series of ads that ran in the 1970s. I think they must have been put out by the Canadian government, but they claimed the average 60-year-old Swede was in as good as if not better shape than a 30-year-old Canadian. I guess the Health Ministry was going through one of its fitness crazes and wanted Canadians to exercise more. How much truth there was in the statement about the 60-year-old Swede, I still don’t know to this day, but for the longest time he, ABBA, and hockey players was all Sweden meant to me. Now I can add something else to my wealth of knowledge about this northern Scandinavian country, they’ve produced at least one brilliant writer of mystery stories.
Starting Sunday September 9 at 9:00 PM and continuing through September 16 and 23, you can see proof of this on your local Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) (check local listings for dates and times of course). For those three weeks will see the airing of the latest adaptation of Henning Mankell’s novels as part of the Mystery segment of Masterpiece. Wallander lll sees the return of the troubled Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) as he deal with three murder cases, “An Event in Autumn”, “The Dogs of Riga” and “Before the Frost”, which are not only brutal but wreck further turmoil on his already fragile emotions.
If you’ve read any of Mankell’s books or seen either of the previous two series, you’ll be familiar with Wallander and what he’s witnessed in the past. However, even if you’ve never seen or read anything that’s come before, it won’t take you long to see the emotional damage he’s suffered in the past. Even the hope generated by his starting a new relationship and moving into a house with his partner and her son isn’t enough to prevent him from shutting himself down emotionally when partially decomposed body of a young woman is found on his new property. With one wreck of a marriage behind him, and his relationship with his adult daughter tenuous at best, Wallander had hoped for a new start. However, he feels it can’t bode well for anything when it turns out the body was the victim of murder.
Things go from bad to worse when a colleague is brutally injured during the course of the investigation. Not only does he feel responsible for what happened to her, when another young women turns up dead, a friend of the first victim, he feels guilty because she wouldn’t be dead if he had been able to catch the killer. Even successfully solving the case does nothing to salvage his new relationship. His partner can’t understand why he takes everything so personally nor why he can’t leave his work at work. He may hate what he sees and the job might cause irreparable damage to his psyche, but his emotional commitment to the job is what makes him such a good cop.
However we have to wonder in watching the ensuing episodes how he’ll ever survive without having a breakdown. The episode airing on September 16 2012, “The Dogs of Riga”, sees him travelling to the capital of Latvia, Riga, investigating a drug smuggling operation. The bodies of two men bearing tattoos associated with the Russian criminal world are found in an inflatable dinghy adrift in the Baltic Sea separating Latvia and Sweden. Not only did the two men bear the signs of having been tortured to death the raft was stuffed with drugs.
Travelling to Riga Wallander finds himself being pulled into the murky world of corruption which seems to have sprung up all over the former Soviet Union. In Latvia he discovers a country split along ethnic lines between native Latvians and Russian nationals who settled there during the communist era. Not able to speak the language and unsure who to trust, his hotel room is bugged (but whether by the criminals or the cops he’s not sure) as one of the cops makes no secret of having been KGB.
While that case is bad enough, with its corrupt officials and the brutal indifference to life he is witnesses, “Before the Frost”, the final episode airing on September 23 2012, is the one that has the most potential to break him. An old childhood friend of Wallander’s daughter disappears after showing up at his house one night distraught and emotional. Unfortunately it’s no coincidence that a series of fires started by an escaped psychiatric patient are happening at the same time. The fires are the tip of the iceberg as both the escapee and the friend of Wallander’s daughter are members of a fanatical Christian cult. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying it’s enough to make an atheist of you, or at least turn you off organized religion forever.
While the scripts are uniformly excellent and the support cast is formidable in its talent, if you’ve seen the previous two series you’ll notice quite a few new faces among the detectives working with Wallander, the show is ultimately a showcase for the talents of Branagh in the lead role. I’ve been fortunate enough to have watched him since one of his first television appearances back in the 1980s. While I’ve never had any doubts about him being one of the finest actors of his generation, his performance as Wallander still leaves me slack jawed in wonder. He seems hopelessly overmatched by the world around him; rumpled, unshaven and constantly under slept and you wonder how he can make it through a day let alone deal with the cases that come his way. Yet every so often we see hints of the iron will and resolve beneath the surface keeping him going. Unlike others though, he doesn’t try and pretend or hide the price he pays for being a cop who cares.
He makes an effort to leave the job behind when he’s with those who aren’t in the police force, but it’s obviously an effort. He’s awkward in social situations, doesn’t know how to make small talk or be inconsequential. When his phone rings to summon him back to the world of murder it almost seems as though its a relief, as if he back on familiar territory again. Yet such is the mastery of Branagh’s performance we can see he knows how wrong this is, but he doesn’t know how to change. However, he does give us occasional glimpses of how things could be different. There are two moments, one in “Dogs of Riga” and one in “Before the Frost” when we see the potential for uncomplicated happiness which somehow has managed to survive. The smile that literally lights up Wallander’s face on both occasions makes you realize he’s not given up hope of there being something better, he just doesn’t have many opportunities to experience reasons for believing in them.
Wallender lll is tough and gritty and in some ways as desolate as the Irish landscape that stands in for Sweden. While it probably only feels like it, but it seems as if almost the entire show takes place in overcast weather and the prominent colours in the camera’s palate are shades of grey and dank blue. These are difficult shows to watch, not only because of the nature of the crimes being investigated, but because of the emotional toll we seen them exact on the lead character. As the title character Branagh gives the type of performance that is the stuff of legend. Other generations had Lawrence Oliver and Alec Guinness, but we have Kenneth Branagh, and this is some of his best work. Don’t miss this opportunity to watch genius at work for three brief Sundays in September; September 9, 16 and 23 at 9:00 PM on your local PBS station.