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Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Lurking in the dense undergrowth of Swedish police procedurals are the outstanding books by Henning Mankell who’s best known for the novels featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander. This is the BBC television adaptation of the fifth book in the series called, Villospår (translated as Sidetracked). The novel was first filmed in 2001 with Wallander played by Rolf Lassgård. There has also been a Swedish television series of original stories featuring Krister Henriksson as Wallander. This somewhat inspiring but not uncomplicated history brings us to the British television series which is a combined effort between Swedish production company Yellow Bird (originally Mankell’s own company but now owned by a Danish company which produced the Millennium “The Girl Who” films — including the US version — and Headhunters) and British Left Bank Pictures starring Kenneth Branagh as Wallander. Uncharacteristically for a British adaptation which usually picks Scunthorpe or somewhere equally inspiring to stand in for Scandinavia, this was actually shot in Sweden, albeit largely with a British cast. This makes the adaptations much more authentic — it being the real Sweden that we see.

Kenneth Branagh and David Warner thinking about their relationship

Because we’re starting in the middle of things, Wallander has already separated from his wife, Mona, and so is even more depressed than usual. During the course of this episode, he makes progress in healing the relationship with his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark). What this adaptation fails to do is deal with the backstory. We start off in the rape seed fields with a girl committing suicide as Wallander looks on helplessly. Even under the best of circumstances this would be traumatic for a police officer. There he is, prepared to talk the hind legs off a donkey to persuade her to live yet, when he produces his police warrant card, she sets fire to herself. Later another girl involved in the case attempts suicide. In the novel series, Linda has also attempted suicide and this fact explains why Wallander is so distressed by the immediate events. He’s also forced to confront the first major signs of dementia in his father Povel (David Warner). He’s always been bad tempered, but this is prone to excess at home with his second wife, Gertrude (Polly Hemmingway) and leads him into a fight in his local supermarket. This slow disintegration of his father is a steady theme given his track record as an artist, obsessively painting highly similar landscapes for his entire career. Later, of course, Wallander becomes concerned about his own mental state.

Jeany Spark trying to keep the family together

From this, you’ll understand that the television adaptation is following the novel’s original structure by focussing on the characters who just happen to be family or whether directly or indirectly, caught up in the murder investigations. For this structure to succeed, the characters must be inherently interesting and the balance with a good puzzle must be properly struck. If the screenwriters get it wrong, we’ll grow bored by the characters because they don’t have enough room to develop, or we’ll find the crimes trivialised. In this case, the crimes are from the heavyweight division. The suicide proves to be one of the girls caught up in a white slaver prostitution ring. The problem for Wallander therefore, is to understand exactly who was involved in the systematic abuse of these women — not something the upstanding members of Swedish society are too keen on admitting even though they may be next on the killer’s list. We also have incest and child abuse involved. In many ways, this is throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the plot, but it actually does come together without seeming too excessive. In the end, it all comes down to a simple reality. The victims all deserved to die because their crimes were hideously excessive. In the midst of trying to keep himself in one piece, Wallander metaphorically leaves one of the surviving villains as the tethered goat to lure out the killer. It’s a terrible cliché but, in this instance, actually works quite well. In no small way, this is a credit to the actors involved who manage to carry off the potential silliness with great authority and calmness.

It’s interesting to see Tom Hiddleston in a relatively minor role as Magnus Martinsson, a youngish member of the police team while David Warner makes a stunningly good patriarch. Kenneth Branagh also seems in his element as Wallander making this adaptation of Sidetracked genuinely impressive.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)

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