Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Agonizing Detective: Wallander Season II

Kurt Wallander is the anti-Dirty Harry. He can have an existential crisis filling out paperwork. The highly intuitive Ystad police detective has cracked many disturbing cases, but it has taken an emotional toll on him. Returning to his first role for television, Kenneth Branagh cranks the psychological turmoil up another notch in Wallander season two, beginning this Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery.

Angst is definitely Wallander’s schtick, but it frankly somewhat misplaced in the second season. The divorced Wallander’s relationship with his daughter Linda is already strained. Watching his father slowly succumb to Alzheimer’s has only exacerbated tensions. Unfortunately, Wallander is about to poison his work environment as well in Faceless Killers, which kicks off season two.

Responding to a call, he finds an elderly couple savagely tortured in their country home. With her dying breath, the wife tries to tell Wallander something that starts with “fo.” Whatever it might be, it can’t possibly be “foreigner,” the copper insists. Naturally, his less enlightened colleagues think this might be a legitimate area of inquiry, as does the local hate group, to Wallander’s exponentially mounting regret. However, Richard Cottan’s adaptation of the Henning Mankell novel takes a bit of an ironic turn, somewhat undercutting Wallander’s political correctness.

Always a fragile psyche, Wallander is a complete basket case as The Man Who Smiled opens. While pursuing his quarry in Faceless, he killed in the line of duty. Of course, Wallander is taking this rather badly, despite the fact the perp “needed killing,” as any Texas lawman would tell him. Further compounding his guilt, an old friend turns up dead shortly after Wallander rebuffs his request for his investigative assistance. Unfortunately, the villain is a rather obvious Hollywood cliché, made all the more transparent by the lack of competing suspects. Still, Smiled features a memorable guest turn from the under-appreciated Vincent Regan (AMC’s The Prisoner and Invasion: Earth) as Anders Ekman, a disgraced former policeman seeking redemption—a very Wallanderesque subplot.

The Fifth Woman is the best and final installment of season two. Wallander now has legitimate reason to be depressed. He also faces a mounting body count, as a possible serial killer dispatches apparently unrelated victims in a spectacularly slow and painful fashion. More a procedural than a mystery, director Aisling Walsh keeps the pace brisk, despite the especially painful nature of Wallander’s family drama. Indeed, it concludes the second season with a high note, on par with the first season.

In a departure from his showier roles in the past, Branagh expresses more with silence than bombast as the baggy-eyed, neurotic title character. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for him to cut loose and rage. Ultimately though, he seems to have a strong fix on Wallander’s wounded humanity. It is a good character, definitely still worth spending time with, particularly in the nearly feature film quality Fifth.

Like the Swedish television counterpart, Branagh’s Wallander comes to the BBC and PBS via Yellow Bird, the production company also behind the Lisbeth Salander Millennium films. Indeed, they are quality productions, capitalizing on Sweden’s austere landscapes, with Emily Barker’s BAFTA award winning theme song “Nostalgia” setting to the moody vibe right from the opening titles. Though season two might fall a bit short of the initial series, it remains one of the more distinctive shows on television. The second season of Wallander starts tomorrow night on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, continuing through October 17th.

Credit: Courtesy of ©Left Bank Pictures/ Yellow Bird for MASTERPIECE