Weekend viewing: Det. Wallandar makes his TV debut

The popular mystery novel series is set in Sweden, but Brit Kenneth Branagh takes on the title role magnificently

The richly detailed series of Wallander mysteries by author Henning Mankell, gets its TV debut, with a three-book adaptation, starting with Sidetracked. (Sundays, PBS, 9 p.m.) Swedish detective Kurt Wallander is “shopworn”—with tired eyes and rumpled clothes. And after years investigating the darkest of crimes, he’s exhausted. And yet, there’s no stopping, this was the job he was born to do.

Sidetracked opens with a seemingly bucolic view of the Swedish countryside, fields of rapeseed gently rustling in the wind. But soon, there is horror as a young girl, mute with terror, sets herself on fire there in that paradise and Wallander can do nothing but watch. What follows is a dark, intense crime thriller that strips away the socialist utopian curtain to reveal the murky depths one doesn’t expect to find in Sweden.

To play the tortured intense Wallander, the BBC producers chose not a Swedish actor such as Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia!, Good Will Hunting) but British acting giant Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Othello). At first Branagh, with his brash acting style, would seem an unlikely fit for the subtly nuanced Swedish detective, but he delivers one of his most subtle effective performances with Wallander. He so completely loses himself in the character that, after seeing the three shows, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

An even more unusual decision by the producers was to fill the cast with a familiar coterie of British actors and plunk them, and their accents, into the Swedish landscape. So one uniformed cop, with the word Polis written across his bright blue uniform, speaks with a Cockney accent as he walks through a distinctively Scandinavian location. Yet soon the dichotomy of Brits in Sweden vanishes and the series benefits from showing just how differently things are done in Sweden.

The locations and landscapes are breathtaking—elegant old mansions coexist with modern homes, and scenes shot through huge windows capture a gloriously picturesque country.

The police station is a modernist architectural marvel while inside everything is high tech and spare. There are no piles of papers and old coffee cups littering desks. Even the office of the perennially shabby Wallander is clean. And while Wallander often works cases by himself, he’s just as often sitting at a large conference table with his colleagues going over the case. There is no hierarchy, no big man at the end of the table, just police working together.

While the most obsessed of Henkell and Wallander fans will doubtlessly pick apart the series for the liberties taken, including the excision of major plot lines from the books, everyone else will discover a wonderfully refreshing series. Though the creators have ditched detail to compress the stories into 90 minutes, the essence of the books is carefully preserved and on display.

So have the best of both worlds: watch the series then get the books.