Monday, October 4, 2010

Some thoughts on Wallander

First, some recommended listening for this post:
Marsen Jules
Couer Saignant and Ludovico EinaudiTracce

Last night, I watched Wallander, a BBC adaptation of a fictional detective series written by Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell. It’s been liberally hyped on public television every Sunday, and honestly, I was lured not only by the long-angled, abstract beauty of the Swedish landscape where the action supposedly takes place. (Still, this is a vital element, contributing to the narrative power—symbolic are the disorientingly high and flattened horizon lines, the broad expanses of wheat and goldenrod that spread out on either side of unpaved rural roads, the bright opacity of the Swedish skies, which seem to perpetually threaten inhabitants with torrential downpours).

No, there was another reason I was interested, although this was, quite honestly, a secondary concern to my interest in the set and the narrative structure (I’m always looking to see how these mysteries are set up, how information is revealed, when the guns come out and under what circumstances). See, I used to have a thing for Kenneth Branagh, the Branagh of Henry V days, when he was all gold and ego.

Allow me to digress for a moment, while I explain this "gold and ego" comment: this was the early 1990s, and my quasi-obsession with a blonde was fairly unusual. At the time, I was into the Andy Garcia types, the Ken Walls. I went more for the strong Latin and Italian features over the lantern-jawed Nordic or pale Celt. Since that was part of my family lineage, I’d already seen quite enough of it and was looking for something different, something warmer. But Branagh had a charisma, even cockiness (The man wrote his autobiography at 35, called Beginning). He was swaggeringly self-aware in a way that seemed obvious, even to me, who was all of 17 when I first saw his performances.

In Wallander, there is little left of Branagh’s blonde. His hair is a faded gray. And he is haggard. Of course, this is part of the character, but I would say it is attributable to an energy tapped directly from some internal, previously unhewn psychological gorge. (Remember, there was the business with wife Emma Thompson, with lover Helene Bonham Carter, for whom he threw Thompson over. And then there was his total eclipse by both women’s careers. Ouch, indeed. But there's been a resurrgence....he's supposed to appear in Thor, or so I've heard.) Still, there is something else, something deeper: a fatigue I did not recognize before. His eyes, anchored by the puffiness of insomnia, bear pupils that narrow to the size of pinpricks in the cloudy intensity of the Swedish landscape. They are a pale blue that looks washed away, even ghostly... no, haunted.

While I have no comparison point, since I have not seen the European version (I’m fairly certain there is a TV series featuring another actor), I like Branagh's portrayal because I can identify with him so closely. He drinks. He cannot sleep. He works unremittingly. He worries, but does not remain in one place with his thoughts. He moves. He kills, but not without reason and not without sincere remorse afterward. Unarmed, he walks towards a loaded gun as if his balls were made of industrial grade steel, as if he believes a mortal wounding is appropriate penance for the damage inflicted on others. He says, “Enough” when the cavalry arrive and after he tells them to lower their guns. He says it just once, a form of individually emphatic punctuation, perhaps not loud enough for others to hear it, but it means a great deal: it means an end to the killing, the deception, the neglect of his own father—an artist whose dementia leads him to periods of extreme violence—an end to the case, an end to his career.

And here, in last night’s episode, there is evidence of Wallander’s own advance towards dementia. It lingers on the periphery, and he struggles to keep it there. Moving uncertainly through a carnival outside a bank he surveils, he becomes disoriented. The intense sights and sounds, which blur as the camera moves, appear to confuse him. They become overwhelming impressions of color and noise only. He enters the bank with wide eyes, his breathing labored, a perfect good-God look on his face. It seems sincerely felt by the actor himself.

His character is honorable: we are supposed to like him, and we do. He cares. He wants to do right. Will he go insane like his father? Most likely. Is he alone? Absolutely. But aren’t we all, when we get to the stripped-down and unvarnished truth; this is the fundamental nature of all physical and metaphysical knowledge. I quote from Henry V here (when Branagh as ‘Hal,’ identity cloaked by a hood, roams around the camp the night before the battle of Agincourt and takes the temperature of his troops, eventually running into a dissenter, to whom he politely ascribes personal responsibility): “Every soldier’s soul is his own.”

And then: the white horse. Bursting from its stall following the murders, running down the farm lane by moonlight, its surreal nature shocks Wallander when he is on his way to the crime scene. But it is free, loose, returned to the wild, running in the fields by day. But it is an existance it cannot ultimately handle. In the end, it is hit by a car and glows with a tranquil, phosphorescent magnificence under the moonlight. A powerful ending, indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment