For many of Irish actor Kenneth Branagh‘s fans, the quintessential Branagh role is his youthfully brash but searingly inspirational King Henry V in the 1989 movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Well, move over, Hank. Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander is about to do what the armies of France could not.
Beginning Sunday night (Oct. 3) on PBS, Wallander and Branagh return to “Masterpiece Mystery” for three new episodes of the series that first aired in May 2009. Based on Swede Henning Mankell’s popular crime novels, “Wallander II” is destined to stamp Branagh’s face on Kurt Wallander just as indelibly as the late John Thaw inhabited Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse and David Suchet has become Hercule Poirot.
Branagh was nominated for an Emmy in 2010 for his portrayal of Wallander, a policeman in the historic Swedish seaside town of Ystad. Wallander is a bit of a sad case: His wife has left him, his 20-something daughter feels invisible in his life, and his artist father is failing physically and mentally. There’s not much in Wallander’s life outside of work, but whether this is cause or effect is not completely clear.
Sunday’s episode, “Faceless Killers,” is based on the first Wallander novel, which begins with the bludgeoning of an elderly farm couple in their home. As the wife lies dying, she tries to identify her attacker. Maybe she whispers “foreigner,” although Wallander isn’t certain. When the utterance leaks to the press, simmering racial tensions begin to boil, more deaths occur and the case spirals out of control.
Although the mysteries to be solved in this series are satisfyingly complex, the greatest pleasure in watching them comes from the breathtaking beauty of the Swedish countryside and the aching solitude of Branagh’s Wallander. Both are front and center in the second episode of the series, “The Man Who Smiled” (Oct. 10), which finds Wallander contemplating quitting the police force after he has killed a man in the line of duty. Teetering on the edge of depression, popping pills and washing them down with red wine, Wallander is in self-imposed exile. He spends his days walking a desolate beach under cold, gray skies until an old friend tracks him down and pleads with him to investigate a suspicious fatal car crash.
Reluctantly, Wallander returns to the real world and back to work, continually haunted by the death he caused and tortured by his family’s open disappointment in him. Only when he begins to make progress on the case is he able to dig himself out of his sadness, loneliness — and rage.
Perhaps the best of the new episodes is the final one, “The Fifth Woman,” which airs Oct. 17. The police are on the trail of a serial murderer who appears to be targeting men who have abused the women in their lives. As the difficult investigation expands in multiple directions, Wallander is confronted with a personal tragedy that threatens to plunge him back into that very dark place. Raw emotions etch themselves into Branagh’s handsome, expressive face and tears threaten. His Wallander is a nearly broken man desperately trying to hold himself together while everything around him is falling apart.
What a thrill it is to watch one of the finest actors working today.
Photo credit: PBS