Wallander: Before the Frost (2005)

aka Mankell’s Wallander: Innan Frosten

2009 #74
Kjell-Åke Andersson | 93 mins | TV | 15

You’re likely familiar with Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander — in passing if not in detail — from the Kenneth Branagh-starring BBC series broadcast at the end of last year (a second series has just finished filming). For the sake of omitting excusatory clauses from the next paragraph, I’ll assume that’s all you know (not that I mean to sound like an expert, because, well, I’m not).

Wallander is adapted from a series of novels by Swedish author Henning Mankell, previously filmed in their original language, between 1994 and 2007, as a series of TV movies starring Rolf Lassgård. A different series of Swedish Wallander films began in 2005 — so, concurrent with the TV adaptations — featuring Krister Henriksson as the titular detective in original stories based on plots by Mankell. Three of these thirteen films received a theatrical release, the remainder going direct to DVD. It’s this latter series that BBC Four are currently halfway through showing, and it’s their theatrical releases that will see three of them reviewed as part of 100 Films 2009.

Before the Frost is the first of this series, and is actually an exception: where the others are original stories, this is adapted from a spin-off novel starring Wallander’s daughter, newly-qualified policewoman Linda Wallander. This leaves Kurt as something of a guest star in the first episode of his own series, but we still see enough of Henriksson to get a feel for his Wallander. Where Branagh is soul-searching, constantly staring silently into the distance, occasionally with a few tears for company, Henriksson is just a guy trying to do his job; struggling to be a good dad and maybe struggling with his health, but still a regular guy. Maybe the introspection and crying come later.

As the de facto lead, Johanna Sällström gets the best of the material. Linda’s troubled relationship with her father, including her decision to work in the same station as him when she could’ve gone anywhere but, are major threads. Sällström plays this central contradiction well, only occasionally (and, thankfully, briefly) slipping down into stroppy teenager histrionics, such as when she storms away from a crime scene early on. As Linda’s friend Anna, Ellen Mattsson also has daddy issues to contend with, though sadly they’re underwritten by comparison. Nonetheless, her significant role is finely portrayed.

Sadly, the majority of the detective story isn’t up to the personal relationships. The villains turn out to be Evil Christians — always a good enemy in my book — with a variety of nefarious plans that lead the story to touch (briefly) on hot-topic issues like abortion, single-parent artificial insemination, and same-sex marriage. While a British or American drama might feel the need to include more of a debate about the morals of such acts, here they seem accepted as a right that the Evil Christians want to steal. Though this arguably leaves them under-considered, it’s a refreshing change of pace.

More problematic is that the villains are never properly introduced or explored. Some events are undersold — a woman is murdered for no decent reason, a case of wrong-place-wrong-time, but once her body is discovered no thought or mention is given to her unfortunate luck or her family’s grief. Obvious deductions stare Wallander and his team in the face yet they fail to make them — the length of time it takes anyone to twig that the fundamental Christians might intend to attack the high-profile gay wedding is astounding. All of these faults rob a few plot twists of their full potential, though at least one still left me surprised and feeling like I should have spotted it (which, of course, is what a competent twist ought to do). Arguably, however, there’s too great a reliance on coincidence to connect all the dots.

Visually this Wallander is as different from the BBC’s as Henriksson is from Branagh. Where the British one seems to attempt an emulation of what our idea of Sweden might be — all cold, desaturated blues and greys, lingering shots of vast empty countryside, and so on — the Swedish version is more, well, normal. (That said, early on it contains a perversely beautiful shot of two swans in flight while engulfed in flames.) No doubt the differences between series are the product of the British version trying to create a Foreign Culture while the Swedish one is just content with filming it as-is, much the same as British-set British dramas do with Britain. On a broadly related note (in that they’re visual), the subtitles are mostly fine, though some jokes and language tricks are unfortunately lost in translation.

Before the Frost is, sadly, not all it could be. Whether this is the fault of Mankell’s novel or Stefan Ahnhem and Pelle Berglund’s adaptation I don’t know (I’ve never read a Mankell), but while it seems fine as it goes along a bit of reflection reveals all these niggling gaps. That might be a little harsh though, as there’s still much to admire and enjoy in the first of what could be a fine series.

4 out of 5

The second theatrical release, Mastermind, was on BBC Four last week and is available on iPlayer for another 24 hours. The third, The Secret (aka Hemligheten), is episode thirteen and will air later this year.

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