Over the next three weeks we bid farewell to a minor bastion of brilliant British television as Kenneth Branagh makes his last appearances as Kurt Wallander in a final trio of 90-minute films.
On the face of it, the stories are not especially remarkable. Henning Mankell’s creation is a dour, depressed detective with a spark of brilliance and a commitment to justice. He lives in Ystad, an out-of-the-way part of southern Sweden, a sleepy town with the occasional grim killing for him to investigate.
Unorthodox but inspired by that thirst for justice, Kurt always gets his man, even if he cannot sort his private life out. Divorced and lonely, he is a creation who seems on the face of it one man in the crowd of other troubled but brilliant detectives, from Morse to Sara Lund to Jane Tennison. You could argue that he is a man with the words fictional detective stamped across his forehead.
I say on the face of it because that would, of course, be a slightly brusque and unfair assessment of Mankell’s well-written and involving stories. But what really stands out for me, certainly with the BBC productions, is the brilliance of the TV adaptations. And in particular the force and power and subtlety of Kenneth Branagh’s acting.
Yes, I know Wallander has been played by others – Rolf Lassgard in the Swedish film version and Krister Henriksson on Swedish TV. But for me Branagh is the stand out Wallander. The King of Kurts.
His skill at capturing the pain within Wallander’s soul, the self-disgust but also the glimmers of joy, the hopefulness that struggles to emerge, is compelling. This has been evident throughout his work in the role, from the very first episode, Sidetracked, in 2008 and the other 11 dazzling films he has starred in over four series.
Sidetracked was the one that opened with the heart-wrenchingly unforgettable spectacle of a lone woman setting fire to herself in a bright yellow rapeseed field. Since then the big skies and eerily flat and unpopulated landscape of Sweden’s Skane region where it is set, has left an indelible impression on viewers. But for me it is Branagh who is, and will always be, the heart and soul of the show.
The opening episode of this latest (and last) Wallander series, the White Lioness, is set not in Sweden but in sun-scorched South Africa; it is an intriguing story about a missing woman that is a very watchable whodunit with lots to say about modern race politics and corruption in the country.
Wallander is there attending a conference, but instead of sitting in an air-conditioned hall talking about police work, he goes and does some of his own, with thrilling results.
Episodes two and three are based on the final book The Troubled Man and take Branagh’s Kurt back home, with many scenes filmed in the northern winter in all its dark crepuscularity.
Film two is a story of the murder of a woman and the possible involvement of a biker gang (prejudice and the way it impinges on police work is a theme rarely too far away in a Wallander story). The final instalment strikes at the heart of Kurt’s own life and is a thrilling tale of Cold War intrigue and family secrets.
But while these two stories are fine in themselves as detective yarns, they are overshadowed by the main drama, which is Kurt’s story, and its stunning portrayal by Branagh.
The last series will really pull at the heartstrings. No secret has been made in the pre-publicity of what is going to happen to Kurt – a painful mental decline that also reminds him of his own family heartache (I’ll leave it at that in case you haven’t seen the interviews which deal with this).
But Branagh is simply towering as his character approaches his end with courage and stoicism, handicapped by unhappiness in a story that is hard to watch, but feels strangely optimistic at the same time.
It’s this combination of all sorts of conflicting feelings and emotions that makes him and the show stand apart. Wallander with all his flaws and strange magnificence, is a man who is at once witty, wise, brave and oddly pathetic. Whatever else this is, it is extremely human. And thanks to Branagh, who stretches every sinew of his considerable acting muscles, it is one that I feel confident will be remembered as a masterclass in years to come.