The beauty of the police procedural is that no matter where it’s produced – the U.S., Britain, Japan, or anywhere else – is that, so far as the narrative is concerned, there are going to be some fundamental similarities: for example, there’s going to be a crime – perpetrated by a criminal or group of criminals – and there are going to be victims. The basic formula – who did what, how was it done, all of the finer details, etc. – is also a staple. What varies (thankfully) is the stylistic approach incorporated by the people who wrote and assembled it – the characters, the culture, the morals or lessons learned, and so on and so forth.
Henning Mankell’s seminal detective Kurt Wallander has been given some excellent treatment by both the Swedes as well as the Brits. While some of the stories were not crafted by Mankell, all of them (so I’ve read) maintain the central focus of Wallander, a flawed man as disillusioned with his work as he is with his life. This narrative center gives these stories, perhaps, a greater human core – while trying to come to terms with his own choices, he’s seeking to uncover how others secretly made the decisions they did; and, arguably, no one’s brought the same measure of personal introspection to the role as actor Rolf Lassgard.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of character and plot. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
This four-DVD set includes “The Man Who Smiled,” “Firewall – Parts 1 & 2,” and “The Pyramid.” For purposes of clarity, I’ll break them down separately (plots and impressions), and then I’ll give a summation of the program in closing.
THE MAN WHO SMILED: An old friend contacts Wallander because he believes that his father – who recently died in an automobile accident – was actually the victim of foul play. What initially looks to be an open-and-shut case quickly develops into much more, and the detective uncovers what may be a global conspiracy involving the mover and shakers at the highest levels of government. SMILED suffers from having an all-too-predictable villain, but it’s elevated to solid heights by the second story – that of Wallander and his work colleague Maja (played by the lovely Marie Richardson) trying to resolve the differences in their on-again-off-again personal relationship. That plotline mirrors the main story – organ-dealing in order to preserve long life – and neither come to a close all that nicely … just like life. (4 out of 5 stars)
FIREWALL, PARTS 1 & 2: Two seemingly unrelated cases – young girls linked to the death of a cab driver and a computer programmer found dead next to his ATM – suddenly converge in ways no one saw coming, leaving Wallander and his colleagues to some shadowy figures bent on equaling the global-playing field in terms of finance. Once it gets into gear, FIREWALL is a gripping tale of a conspiracy gone wrong with consequences that stretch from one continent to the other. It’s full of excellent performances, and some of Wallander’s quirks get greater exploration as it’s discover he’s suffering from a life-changing illness that might be the source of his personal frustration. Granted, there are a few moments that appear way too coincidental, but look closely and you’ll see that most of that is the by-product of routine police work obscuring the bigger picture. (5 out of 5 stars)
THE PYRAMID: Wallander and his colleagues find themselves drawn into the bitter, bloody struggle mounted by rival drug cartels, and our lead detective finds an unexpected link back to his earliest days with the police force. This personal discovery forces him to reconsider the choices he’s made along the way, but, if he isn’t careful, others will see his efforts as an act of vengeance that’ll destroy what’s left of his struggling police career. It’s told briskly – maybe a bit too briskly – to be such an intimate, personal reflection, but Lassgard pulls it off; Wallander manages to finally bring some closure to his past, as well as put himself on a slightly different road toward an all-new tomorrow. (4 out of 5 stars)
What’s a delight consistently is watching these people – actors – work. Lassgard and Richardson are perfect, playing flawed and human characters driven to different lengths by the lives they’ve lead. What’s remarkable is how deeply they flesh out the people they play – they’re bodies that look lived in, unlike so many of their detective counterparts in American or even some British productions. They’re far from the underwear model good looks of, say, the contemporary HAWAII-5-0 or the prim and proper men of the BBC’s SHERLOCK HOLMES. They’re real – audiences can easily embrace them as living, breathing human beings with all of their flaws – and just as they’re struggling to get through the workday they’re trying to find their place in their own world.
So far as this reviewer is concerned, that puts WALLANDER head-and-shoulders above most procedurals. It puts the consummate ‘everyman’ at the center of these modern morality tales, and it requires them to confront society’s hypocrisy and its blatant inhumanity. Much of the weight of these stories evolve from aberrations from cultural norms – the immortality syndrome of businessmen wanting to engineer longer life at a profit; an anarchist’s desire to throw man back to the stone age to benefit everyone – and this forces our flawed protagonists to set aside their personal differences (when and if they can) with one another in order to return their world to as close to the status quo as they can, all the while knowing that they’re smothering (to death) under the same status quo. That’s the ultimate falsehood Wallander himself comes face-to-face with in THE PYRAMID: do I continue to do what I must for society’s gain, or do I hang it all up in favor of personal happiness? It’s the ultimate ‘me’ versus the ultimate ‘them.’
His decision may surprise even you.
WALLANDER is produced by Tre Vanner Produktion AB. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through MHz Networks. As for the technical specifications, the discs look and sound terrific, with crisp, tight images complemented by exceptional sound engineering. Sadly – as is often the case with some of these imports – there are no special features to speak of.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. WALLANDER does have a few moments of routine police procedurals and the usual predictability or convolution common to detective work, but what elevates these productions above the usual fare is the flawed moral core of the players tied into some effective storytelling. These are people – just like you and me – who are tasked with doing the jobs we don’t do; and – just like you and me – they have their own hang-ups blocking their effectiveness. When they put them aside, they manage to get the job done, but not without some toll extracted from their mortal souls. Society pulls them one way, and they push back in another; that’s the real struggle at the heart of good drama. It works here because its built on the shoulders of author Mankell’s ideas as much as it is the strength of Lassgard and Richardson’s skills as actors.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MHz Networks provided me with a DVD copy of HENNING MANKELL’S WALLANDER: THE ORIGINAL EPISODES by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops". … more