ANXIETY ON SCREEN: Wallander

Last night I watched an episode of Wallander, the BBC series featuring Kenneth Branagh in the role of Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander.

I’m a Wallander tragic. I’ve read all the books, and I’ve seen as much of the related TV work as possible, including the Swedish language spinoff TV series featuring Krister Henriksson, and the earlier, more faithful Swedish TV adaptations of the books featuring the man who owned the part like no-one else, Rolf Lassgård, my favourite screen Wallander.

I’ve always felt that Kenneth Branagh was wrong for the part, but I’ve watched his takes on the character now many times, and over many viewings I’ve come to grimly accept that he’s never going to be Lassgård, no matter how much I might wish it so. For one thing, he looks much too “together”, even at his shabbiest. He looks too put-together. Usually, at least.

But last night I was watching the adaptation of book three in the series, The Man Who Smiled. It’s, in my opinion, the weakest of the original novels, with an organ-trading rich bastard who is so plainly and calmly evil he could be a Bond villain. I was shocked, reading the book, at how awful a character he is, how almost comically bad, how two-dimensional. And in this TV adaptation, the actor does his best with the part, which doesn’t ask for much other than cool, calm, smugness, a glib sincerity that in the beginning Wallander finds disarming, and even admirable.

But, what’s truly striking about this adaptation is what’s happening with Wallander himself. In the previous episode, he’s for the first time in his life killed a man in morally complex circumstances, leading to what appears to be a complete mental breakdown. He went on indefinite sickleave to a faraway guesthouse near a wintry beach, and Wallander spends, we’re told, six months just standing on the beach all day long, lost in depression and crippling anxiety. Indeed, at the beginning of Smiled, he’s approached on that beach by an old friend who’s concerned about the circumstances surrounding his father’s death. He wants his friend Wallander to look into it, but Wallander turns him away, a shattered man who knows he’s not up to it.

But of course events lead from one development to another on a familiar road of plot (broken man finds wholeness and redemption in work), and soon Wallander, shaking and sweating with anxiety, is on the case, trying to figure out what happened. He’s a detective in not much more than name only. He shakes, and slouches; he sweats and stammers, and barely even speaks or looks anyone in the eye. He sweats so much during his presentation of mysteriously suggestive evidence to his former team that afterwards, slinking back to his office after everyone tells him he’s got nothing, and treat him almost with contempt, he wipes his sweaty armpits on his office curtains.

I’ve seen this episode a few times already, but watching it last night, in the wake of my own recent struggles with major anxiety and depression, I saw it as if for the first time. Wallander is a desperately sick man, barely able to function, as sour and useless as the expired and mouldy food in his unpowered fridge.

This episode, despite the whole organ-trafficking storyline, does a spectacular job of portraying anxiety and depression. It’s unrealistic that Wallander is back to his old self by the end of the episode. In the books his recovery takes longer, and the traumatic memory of shooting a man continues to haunt him for the rest of the book series. But in this TV adaptation, Branagh, who has always done intensity well, makes a convincing anxiety sufferer. The actor has either known it himself, or has studied it closely. I was amazed, watching it, the sheer subtlety of his performance, the minimal touches in the way he carries his body, the way he speaks, movements of his head. It’s an amazing thing to see, at least for me with my own recent experiences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *