It’s rare that a genre gets it right the first time. Wallander didn’t just start a global fascination with Nordic noir; more than a decade on, it remains at the head of the pack. Other series like The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge definitely made their mark on the world of Scandinavian crime, but in the end it’s the brooding, brilliant, occasionally boozy Kurt Wallander that remains the one to beat.
He’s a classic detective
Much of that is due to Wallander himself. Author Henning Mankell created a detective so distinctive that across three very different adaptations (and with a fourth, Young Wallander, set to start on Netflix any day now) he’s remained uniquely, irrevocably himself.
Both the earlier Swedish films and a UK version (with Kenneth Branagh) focused on the detective’s early career, but it’s the three seasons of the Swedish TV series where he’s played by a convincingly haggard Krister Henriksson, that best capture the essence of Kurt Wallander.
As the heart and soul of the series, Wallander’s appeal is obvious. He’s a driven cop with a vulnerable side, a man committed to doing what’s right, even as he knows the damage it’s doing to his life. With a wry charm, he’s thoroughly likable (and likes drinking and opera), even as he’s beset by personal dramas. Well, perhaps “beset” is an understatement.
He’s had a rough life
Professionally Wallander got off to a rough start; he was stabbed and almost died right at the beginning of his law enforcement career. Personally his life hasn’t been much better, with his obsessive focus on crime leading to a string of failed relationships. Even his connection with his daughter Linda has been a rocky one, and as for his father… well, we’ll get to that.
To make matters worse, Linda (Johanna Sällström) has decided to follow in her father’s footsteps. It’s safe to say that being a police officer with Kurt Wallander as your father is not easy.
He’s obsessed with crime
Obviously Linda’s career choice is a matter of great torment for her father, and not because almost everything eventually becomes a matter of torment for Wallander: he fears she’ll also follow him down a path where there is nothing left but the relentless desire for justice.
While his obsession is bad news for him, it’s perfect for us mystery lovers. Like all great detectives, he’s dogged and determined to an almost superhuman degree. And the crimes he investigates are worthy of his skills; even what seem to be run-of-the-mill murders always have some deeper aspect to them, some insight into human nature or the state of Swedish society.
He’s taking down the ills of society
The darkness that threatens to overwhelm Wallander himself is often reflected in the cases he tackles. They’re gritty, hard-edged mysteries that often involve children; this focus on true-to-life crime helped establish Nordic noir’s reputation for realism. There’s a mood and a meaning to the crimes Wallander deals with that go beyond straightforward puzzle-solving; he tackles whodunnits where the answer is never simply just “that guy did it”.
In a Sweden beset by all manner of issues – including racism, a flaw Wallander himself isn’t immune to, though he rejects it in himself whenever it surfaces – even crimes of passion have a deeper cause. Social realism is hardly new for crime fiction, but the mix of a compelling lead and a string of real-life crimes makes for compelling viewing. All it needs is one final classic element…
He comes from a land of ice and snow
And then there’s the setting. Nordic noir is defined by its bleak but beautiful locations, chilly landscapes that manage to be both desolate and stirring; with his melancholic, thoughtful nature Wallander could come from nowhere else.
It’s hard to imagine how he could exist outside the chilly confines of his home town of Ystad, near the southern tip of Sweden, so thoroughly does he seem suited to the open spaces and sombre mood. He’s like a crime-solving snowman; transplant him to a tropical beach and watch him melt away.
It’s not all grim
It’s not all bleak with a side serve of gloom with Kurt Wallander. There’s a certain grim humour in his… well, it’s not exactly banter with his fellow officers. He’s able to see the funny side of the remorselessly grim situations he often finds himself in, in a “you have to laugh” kind of way. And with his future already laid out for him in the fate of his once brilliant artist father now struggling with Alzheimer’s, Wallander’s going to need that sense of humour.
Wallander has a reputation for being a sombre, stark series, but there’s a cold chuckle at the heart of it all. What could be more of a cruel joke than a man defined by his intellect facing a disease that may slowly but surely take it away?
Watch all three seasons of Wallander now at SBS On Demand. Here is where it all began:
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