BBC Video // 2010 // 270 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // December 10th, 2010
Kenneth Branagh is back as Kurt Wallander in the BBC's second series based on the popular Swedish detective novels.
Swedish novelist Henning Mankell's most popular creation, Inspector Kurt Wallander, has spawned quite an industry in his homeland. The Swedes have already produced a movie series based on Mankell's nine original books and two television series based on new stories. The Brits entered the fray with their own series of three feature-length television movies in 2008. BBC's Wallander won numerous BAFTA prizes including Best Drama Series and Best Actor for Kenneth Branagh (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). The same production team reunites for another three movies that old fans will love and new viewers must see.
Wallander: Series Two (Blu-ray) is a two-disc set containing the three 90-minute movies...
"Faceless Killers" is based on the first Wallander novel by Mankell but the story is handily adapted to follow the protagonist's history from the previous series of TV movies. Wallander investigates the murder of an elderly farming couple. An unguarded comment inspires a rash of racist violence in the community.
"The Man Who Smiled" opens with Wallander on medical leave following the events of the previous film. When an old friend turns to Wallander for help in uncovering the circumstances of his father's death, the detective turns him down. However, when his friend commits suicide, a guilt-ridden Wallander returns to action.
A spate of gruesome serial killings in "The Fifth Woman" has the team working overtime. Coping with his father's death, Wallander finds comfort with Vanja Andersson (Saskia Reeves, Luther (2010)), the ex-lover of one of the murder victims.
Consider the likes of Sherlock Holmes among the ancestry of fictional English detectives and perhaps it's no surprise that the U.K. is the source of many of television's best crime dramas. Adapted from the popular series of Swedish novels, the BBC's Wallander is indeed among the top tier of police shows. Each episode begins with fleeting details of the crime. Often the details are gruesome but the filmmakers exercise considerable restraint when it comes to gory imagery. Aside from the opening scene, each movie is told strictly from the perspectives of Wallander and the police force of Ystad, Sweden. They collect evidence, round up witnesses, ask tough questions and make connections. The storytelling makes the police investigations quite realistic in the sense that they're often very long and frustrating. Still, each episode is well plotted and tensely paced.
In the tradition of the best television detectives, Kurt Wallander is a brilliant professional but a private mess. His marriage has ended, his relationship with his daughter is strained and he can hardly look after his father Povel (David Warner, Tron) who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Branagh portrays the struggling investigator to fearless perfection in some of the best work he's done. Unlike a lot of Branagh's usual characters, Wallander is not a man of eloquent speeches. Watch him quietly pour over a crime scene, cautiously share a theory with colleagues or lash out in anger and frustration. There were times in the second episode when I felt like looking away because the character seemed like such a wreck that it was almost uncomfortable to stare at him. When Wallander is in his element he can be smart and confident but Branagh also lets himself look tired and small. It's in those moments that you see how the job is taking a toll on his soul.
The scriptwriters give Branagh plenty to chew as Wallander's domestic stress distracts him from his work (and vice versa). Each episode also plays on a theme that relates Wallander's existential conflicts with the crimes he's investigating. The first episode brings to light his latent prejudice, for example. The second episode is a bit obvious in its depiction of the bad guy but the early reveal presents Wallander with another dilemma. His powerlessness in dealing with an intelligent villain complicates his crisis over the worth of a human life. These issues are handled well in the individual episodes and over the course of the series it's very satisfying to witness the personal transformation of the character.
The films look excellent in this 1080i/VC-1 high-def encode. The cool color palette and gorgeously soft lighting evokes a haunting and almost dreamlike atmosphere. The cinematography generally employs a shallow depth of field with deliberately precise focusing. These visual intentions are conveyed superbly by picture quality that is pleasingly sharp with details that are crisply and cleanly rendered. Black levels are deep with a hint of texture and detail preserved in the shadows.
Two audio options accompany the episodes but the only real choice is the DTS-HD 5.1 mix. Voices are strong and clear while the occasional environmental sound effect is well placed in the surrounds. The music gets good representation as well, never interfering with the dialogue but very effectively setting the mood with the help of an ominous throbbing beat on the low end. The stereo mix is merely adequate as voices are strong but music and effects are substantially limited. On the discs we received for review, there was an occasional crackle heard on the stereo mix for all episodes and the featurettes.
Two standard-def featurettes are included on the second disc following the third episode. "Wallander Country" (15:00) looks at the filming of the second BBC series and includes the comments from several cast and crewmembers. These three episodes were being shot at the same time as the production of another Swedish Wallander series. We hear anecdotes about how the first series sparked a surge of interest in Ystad from English tourists. Local crewmembers remark on the Swedes' reaction to the British version. We hear more from the actors in "Being Kurt Wallander" (10:00) but this segment fills a lot of its running time with clips from the episodes.
Wallander has inspired new tourism in Sweden and especially in the small town of Ystad where the stories are based. It's good to remind ourselves that these stories are works of fiction as the high frequency of brutal murders in a medieval town of 17,000 inhabitants (in 2005) should be a tip off. Some of the comments by locals reveal that the look of the show is very stylized. The colors of the landscape are retouched and the geography of the town is anything but authentic. The municipal swimming pool doubles as the exterior of the police station. It's often true that a place looks more interesting through the eyes of a foreigner and that holds true of foreign film crews too.
I feel like I should confess that I hadn't seen the first Wallander series before reviewing this title. However, each episode is self-contained and the bigger story arc over these three films is itself quite satisfying that I had no problem catching up with the character starting with this set. The HD image and sound is excellent. Fans of the first series will love this. I'm adding the previous series to my viewing queue.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 270 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site