With his rumpled raincoat, ever-present cigar, bumbling demeanour and Sherlock Holmesian powers of deduction, disarmingly polite homicide detective Lieutenant Columbo took on some of the most cunning murderers in Los Angeles, most of whom made one fatal, irrevocable mistake: underestimating his investigative genius.
Both the first series of Swedish TV's Wallander and the second collection of British TV's interpretation have recently been aired on British TV, and whilst they share a number of elements and qualities (locations, excellent filmatography, thoughtful and impressive 'takes' on the central figure of Kurt Wallander), it's the differences that seem to separate a good television drama from an outstanding one.
Obviously the two productions differ in a number of basic ways and it's worth highlighting these as a given. For the most part Swedish Wallander uses Mankel's stories as inspiration, creating unique plots per episode, whilst British Wallander uses the source material and thus far has for the most part faithfully adapted 6 of Mankel's books (interestly the choice has been to adapt out of sequence, although the original stories were also published out of sequence, in Britian at least). An exception is the depiction of Kurt's father and his struggle with dementia, which logically has to progress through the overall TV series.
A second key difference is the interpretation of Kurt Wallander's relationship with his daughter. Swedish TV puts Linda into the police force from the outset, and uses this device to explore their legendary troubled relationship with the added frisson of professional, hierarchical tensions. Also into the mix is the relationship between Linda and her colleague Stefan Lindman. British Wallander maintains the original Linda/Kurt story arc, with Linda not yet having enrolled for police duty.
A third difference is the inclusion/exclusion of the Ann-Britt Höglund character. It seems the Swedish version quickly came to view this character as unnecessary within the looser story structure, as she is dispensed with well before Series One concludes. For British TV Höglund remains integral, just as she is in the books.
However, setting aside these givens, there are a number of factors which set the two interpretations apart in terms of quality, success and viewer experience. British Wallander is quite pacey, moving the story along briskly from scene to scene. Whilst this mostly works, it does occasionally occur at the expense of scene and/or character development - the camera (and therefore the viewer) is forced to follow Kurt, leaving other characters as cyphers. This is most notable during scenes with colleagues at police HQ. Swedish Wallander adopts a slower style, allowing characters and stories to develop and unfold with greater subtlety. This approach leads to a second and quite fundamental difference, and it is this element that underlines the superiority of the Swedish Wallander. The combination of writing, direction and editing for a slower pace allows the Swedish actors to effectively 'do less' and achieve more. Accordingly, Henricksson, Bergman, Sällström, Rapace et al are repeatedly given the time and direction to use economy and skill to enable the viewer to understand what they are thinking, feeling etc. The final episode of Series One was a particular example of this, with all concerned but particularly Sällström and Henricksson underplaying beautifully to create scenes of desperate sadness, bewilderment and loss whilst actually 'doing' very little. In comparison, a combination of misjudged casting and actors being let down by script and scene construction in the British version means for the most part the viewer receives less reward. Branagh, Warner and most notably McCabe as Nyberg are the exceptions, the former not least because Wallander remains the prime focus through the British drama, and is therefore given more time, scene-by-scene, and Warner because he is quite simply an experienced and clever film actor. Yet it is McCabe who shines, underplaying beautifully, especially during scenes in Episode 4 - The Faceless Killers.
Views on casting are always contentious. Suffice to say, the Swedish series has somehow managed to secure a host of clever actors who know a thing or two about camera work, and particularly scenes in close-up. From the moments of occasional humour gratefully received from Mörck's Ebba and Gunnarsson's Svartman (an incidental and unsung masterpiece of a performance) to the brilliance of Henricksson and Sällström, it's the Swedish production which holds the treats and subtleties and warrants repeat viewings.
Let's hope the BBC transmits Series 2 as soon as possible, and let's also hope the absence of Rapace and Sällström doesn't diminish what has been an excellent television production.
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