In the dry months after my cancer treatment, when the visitors stopped visiting and I put all the cards away in a box, when it began to dawn on me what I had been through, and I was able to concentrate again, part relishing, part dreading the onslaught of tears which would follow after encountering a poem, a favourite song on the radio, or even, how clichéd, one of that autumn’s miraculous sunsets, I swapped my addiction to Frasier for one to Wallander, the eponymous Swedish detective crime show, played impeccably by Krister Henriksson. I loved the stories: their brooding-beautiful atmosphere, their cinematic sweep and engrossing subplots; the unswerving gaze the entire project took at themes of moral urgency: human trafficking, sex slavery, exploitation of immigrants, our apparently unconscious dependency on computerised financial systems. I loved the look of them, too. Wallander staring out to sea, watching his daughter windsurfing; Wallander fingering a glass of whisky, while Puccini played in the background. Cloud formations. The wind playing over and across a field of corn. Over time, the point of watching them shifted from finding out who or what, to trying to discover why, not so much the motives of the various perpetrators, but how this ordinary, broken man could go on looking at the things he did without becoming more broken. How was it possible for him to keep going forward without going under? How far would he allow the crimes he witnessed to make a dent in his isolation and rage? When I look back at my early remission, this is what I remember thinking: at least I am not Wallander.
As I moved further away from my treatment, and even I stopped using the word cancer around my family, friends and colleagues, the gaps between series of Wallander seemed to grow longer. Into one of these gaps appeared the Kenneth Branagh versions of the stories. It was like falling in love all over again. These new/old stories contained the same campaigning urgency, the same ominous atmosphere, the same stunning cinematography. Only more so. There was something in these new versions which felt even closer to life (and death), closer to watching an actual man trying to think and react humanely under duress which made them almost unbearable.
I found myself becoming fascinated with the surface features of the films: what the light looked like in Sweden, how did their sea look different from ours, was it really true they all lived inside perfect whitewashed interiors? If Wallander’s life was anything to go by, evidently not. He seemed to inhabit a world that was entirely brown, from the bare wooden walls of his house and police station to the enormous geometric painting dominating the far wall of its meeting room. Even the coffee cups were brown. Likewise, the homes of his suspects looked desperately ordinary. One episode, featuring a single mother struggling to bring up her errant teenage son and howling toddler, featured a cheap-looking leather sofa and peeling wallpaper. This was not what I had expected at all.
Repeated tropes became familiar, even comforting in their predictability. Wallander, we are shown, never seems to sleep. If he does, it is in his work clothes, by accident, and always alone. A feat of each film’s directorial ingenuity is to find new ways of making Branagh wake up in a setting that is different from the previous one. Some of these are to be expected: the armchair of his sitting room; ditto his sofa, and car. But, a murdered colleague’s sofa? The chair in his deceased father’s studio? His father’s bench, overlooking the ocean? He even wakes up in the cells. His daughter tries to get him to eat healthily, filling his fridge with bean sprouts and the like, but the old ways continue. He appears to subsist on a diet of red wine, coffee, cold pizza and pills. Whatever demons Wallander faces, his lifestyle is resolute in not coming to his aid. Not that he is without offers of help. Colleagues routinely come up to him, touch his arm or tilt their heads sideways before inviting him to a lovely little place they have discovered, or, in one episode, a family supper of boiled fish. Another stress-test of ingenuity: how many ways can Branagh find to say no, thanks, he will be fine. In this way, he is closer to my old friend Frasier than I had previously imagined. That show’s most enduring and melancholy joke is that while Frasier is paid as an expert psychiatrist to listen to other people’s problems on the radio, he remains doomed never to heal himself.
Similarly, when Branagh does look his fellow humans in the eye it is nearly always in the context of work, in team meetings or during interrogations. In the few occasions a colleague (it is never a friend from outside of work) persuades him to go out, he will sit at the bar with them staring straight ahead, rather than face them across a table. It is the only way he seems to be able to say anything about himself. If he does, as when his daughter introduces him to her Syrian boyfriend in an upmarket restaurant, or when Nyberg finally buys him a pizza, the occasion goes badly. The exception to this rule is when, encouraged by his daughter, Branagh meets a stranger, Ella Lindfeldt, on the internet, and they meet for coffee. Sitting outside across a tiny metal table the star-crossed couple begin to talk: the coffee turns into a beer, which turns into lunch, returning full circle to coffee again. Watching this for the second time recently, it struck me that it’s one of the few occasions we see Wallander permit himself to open up, even smile. ‘You can feel people’s lives,’ he tells her. ‘You can hear them speaking, just by looking around.’ Though we already know it will be hopeless, this is where their mutual attraction begins. From that moment Ella names him ‘poet-detective’.
In keeping with the tropes of other cop-shows, and, now I think of it Frasier, the greatest wound in his life is not the horror Wallander deals with for his day job, but his separation from those who would love him most, his daughter and irascible artist father, played by David Warner. It is here where most goes said that should not be, and unsaid what should be. I lost count of the times when, on the brink of telling them something as simple, and vulnerable, that he loves them, his mobile phone begins to ring in his jacket pocket. ‘Sorry,’ he mutters. ‘I’ve got to take this. Work.’ If he is aware of the annoyance on others’ faces, he does not show it, at the same time failing to mask the relief on his own. These tensions plunge new depths when his father is diagnosed with dementia. Pacing around in the cells after his father’s arrest for violent conduct in a supermarket, he accuses him of being a ‘tyrant’: ‘What were you thinking? Did you think you could beat it?’ he yells. But he may as well be shouting in the mirror. The two of them come face to face for the final time in the scene where Branagh discovers his dead father’s body. Finding him as though asleep in his studio armchair, before a newly-started canvass, still clutching a paintbrush, Branagh charges in repeating the single word ‘Dad!’ more than twenty times in quick succession. The first fifteen of these utterances are like repetitive gunfire. As the realisation of what he is seeing takes hold, his pace slows. The last five, all of the same word, are each completely different. By contrast they are like depth-charges. Shaking his father by the shoulders, his final action is to regard his father without words, two of the great Hamlets facing each other, the younger gulping for breath, the other no longer able to. If Wallander is a poet, it is in such moments of silence, where words will not reach, that he speaks most eloquently.