Branagh's Twists and Turns

Kenneth Branagh has temporarily traded Shakespeare for serial killers in Masterpiece Mystery’s new Wallander installments and superheroes in his highly anticipated directing effort, Thor.

09.30.10 10:36 PM ET

Sweden has made several recent notable donations to the pop-culture landscape, from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard.

But the influence of the Scandinavian country doesn’t just rest on hacker Lisbeth Salander or vampire Eric Northman. Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels and the subsequent English-language BBC television adaptation—which returns for a second season on Sunday as part of PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery (check your local listings)—provide another take on the wide-open terrain of Sweden and its more down-to-earth inhabitants.

Wallander’s Sweden is a bruised landscape of vastness punctuated by the inexplicable eruption of violence, the spell of those placid Northern Lights broken by unspeakable cruelty. The savage crimes that flare up in the series are like cancerous infections that seem at odds with the placid nature of this liberal country.

A breakout hit in the U.K. and around the world (and even in Mankell’s native country, which had its own Swedish-language television series), Wallander stars BAFTA Award-winning actor Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander, a hard-bitten Ystad police detective whose greatest asset is also his weakness: He’s doomed to care too much.

Divorced and maintaining a precariously balanced relationship with his adult daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) and his dementia-suffering father (David Warner), Branagh’s self-reflective Wallander is an existential hero, one whose motivations aren’t just to solve the case but also to examine the flawed nature of the dangerous suspects he crosses paths with, and himself.

“He really is disappointed in the human condition and especially his own,” said Branagh. “He worries about what it takes to be a good human being and, compelled as he is to be a detective, that compulsion is sometimes secondary to the way in which his job allows him to consider those matters and weigh what it is that makes people perform these terrible acts of cruelty and violence.”

The second season of Wallander comprises three haunting feature-length mysteries, and doesn’t give the detective much cause for optimism. Wallander is diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, but his attention to his own well-being is diverted by the brutal murder of an elderly farmer and his wife—based on Faceless Killers—and preventing an outbreak of a series of racially motivated attacks on migrant workers after a foreigner is implicated in the crime. (He’s also forced to deal with his own bias when Linda begins dating a doctor of Syrian heritage.)

“[Kurt] is facing up to issues of fitness, health, and mortality, mirrored by looking at his father and realizing that there is the possibility of dementia and Alzheimer’s settling in,” said Branagh. “In a very compact way, the subject matter of the crimes reflect very strongly the struggles in his own personal life.”

It’s a life that further goes off the rails when an unexpected act of violence perpetrated by Wallander in the line of duty this season causes the detective severe psychic damage. “He runs away essentially,” said Branagh. “He collapses under the strain of it and he is bitten by guilt, remorse, and self-reproach.”

All of which makes Wallander an appealingly flawed hero. The more damage he absorbs, the more depravity he witnesses, the more it cuts him to the core. (Branagh said that when author Mankell gave Wallander diabetes in his novels, sales spiked dramatically.) The more piercing the pain, the more sympathetic Wallander becomes to his devoted audience.

Still, Branagh doesn’t see Wallander as tragic.

“For all of his involvement with the dirt under the fingernails of modern life, he has a strange quality of innocence,” said Branagh. “If you asked Kurt, he might say that his life is too ordinary and banal to ever achieve tragic dimensions.”

While there are more Wallander mysteries in the works (the BBC has commissioned a third season), Branagh’s next opus is next summer’s tentpole action blockbuster Thor, based on the comic-book superhero and the thunder god of Norse mythology, which he directed. The film, due out May 6, stars Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston (who stars alongside Branagh in Wallander), Natalie Portman, and Anthony Hopkins.

Branagh—known more for directing Shakespeare adaptations such as Hamlet, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and As You Like It—might seem like a surprising choice to helm a big-budget superhero smash-up, but he maintains that Thor, despite its superhero trappings, isn’t that much of a leap from the Bard.

“I’ve never really thought of it as a superhero film on its own, any more than I felt when I was making a Shakespeare film that I wasn’t making a popular film,” said Branagh. “He never let anyone live happily ever after without some kind of question mark over them, and looked to family dynamics to be the start of riveting drama. If you made those families very powerful and influential, then those conflicts might have an extraordinary and added political dimension or an epic dimension in terms of their consequences.”

“These kinds of stories make the same connection between that which an audience recognizes—jealousies, conflicts, passions, disputes between siblings, parents, and children—and the way in which those… spectacles can also be part of the exhilaration that we might sometimes rather yearn for in our own lives when we’re arguing with our own siblings, but vicariously provided by gods and heroes.”

But it’s not all thunder gods and chilly Swedish detectives for this Northern Irish actor. He’s signed on to play Sir Lawrence Olivier in Simon Curtis’ star-studded Marilyn Monroe drama My Week With Marilyn, opposite Emma Watson, Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Dame Judi Dench, and Dominic Cooper.

About Thor, Branagh said, “I’ve never really thought of it as a superhero film on its own, any more than I felt when I was making a Shakespeare film that I wasn’t making a popular film.”

“I can confirm that I’m going to play Lawrence Olivier in that film,” Branagh said. “It’s taken a while to because of various simple but time-consuming things to get it sorted out, but I’m at least 99.9 percent certain. I’m very happy to be involved with it. It’s an excellent, excellent script.”

But in the meantime, there might be more Wallander beckoning him, as he’s hoping to shoot the third season after he delivers Thor to the studio. Which means Branagh will make another long trip to Sweden.

“It seems like a land where people can think, where they can still have room to develop and the small price they pay is the weather is often severe,” said Branagh, when asked about the lure of Scandinavia. “The Swedes, in the summer, are pagan and hugely ravenous for the fun, the light, and the warmth of the summer and many of them, as some people would say, drink themselves through the winter to survive the vastly reduced hours of sunlight. It means that as human beings, they experience things in these very extreme, sometimes revealing, ways.”

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.