Kenneth Branagh fell into his love affair with the “Wallander” mysteries by Swedish author Henning Mankell (1948 – 2015) for “the sheer pleasure of the reading,” he told me over the phone. “It was novel by novel. I’m not usually a kind of completist in this regard, but each novel did send me to the next one, and I did read them in order, and I did find myself drawn in, hypnotically. I didn’t feel I’d met anyone quite like this before or this landscape.”
The novels are set in Sweden, in and around the town of Ystad, 35 miles south-east of the city of Malmö, in the southern province of Skåne. And that’s where the PBS Mystery series (four seasons, from 2009 through 2016) is also filmed. “It’s vast and flat,” said Branagh. “It has a strong regional dialect. It’s a curious, forgotten, unfashionable pocket of land. Over 60 percent of Swedes own summer homes of some kind, as a nation, for those six weeks in the summer when they need to get out into nature or to the sea and forest. And the least popular place to do it is Skåne. It was a land of big sky, it’s so flat that you are consciously aware of the dramatic and changing weather pattern, it physically and visually gives you space to think.”
Of course Branagh wanted to play the popular existentialist philosopher detective, and wondered if there might be an English film version of the books in the works. And sure enough a call came through that the Swedish producers Yellow Bird (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), the BBC and the Left Bank were all circling the English rights at the same time. Branagh has never watched the Swedish language versions “so as to not be in whatever way influenced or daunted or put off or any of the above,” he said.
As an executive producer Branagh has had considerable say on casting — he read with everybody who came in, from young Tom Hiddleston, whose career he jump-started, to Jeany Spark, who plays his daughter Linda. “I feel like a lucky participant in other people’s natural advance,” he said, “in Tom’s case, Chris Hemsworth [“Thor”] or Lily James [“Cinderella”]. She’s currently a terrific Juliet for us on the West End stage. It’s nice to see people make that breakthrough, not so much for the public acclaim, but to see people who are talented put together meaningful work early on. Sometimes they’re maturing at an amazing accelerated rate. It’s pleasing to be close to that, to recognize it. I certainly have always been deeply grateful for those who helped me out when I was young. Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench were both enormously encouraging and took risks on me at an early age when they should probably have known better.”
Branagh, who is a gifted director of both theater and film (“Henry V”), was also involved in conversations with all the “Wallander” directors and cinematographers. “What we found was a shared sensibility in response to the show,” said Branagh. “We didn’t have to agree on all its detail, just have a feel for it. Some people had it and some people didn’t. That didn’t make them wrong. The show is ruminative and mediative. We were all drawn into it in some way we shared. The character and the internal journey for ‘Wallander’ was as interesting to try and express as the procedural crime drama it also was. We were careful to work with people who responded in that way, who didn’t mind being invited to be particularly visually poetic.”
Clearly “Wallander” marked a way of mounting something different inside the familiar procedural genre, which has had some influence on other shows to come, from its cinematic shotmaking and color palette to “the time it took,” said Branagh. “The rhythm and pace was at a different pulse than a lot of the shows at that time, with some kind of marriage of character and landscape.”
This fourth and in all likelihood final season brings detective Kurt Wallander into a time when he’s losing control of his mind and memory. Mankel started writing the Wallander books when he was in his late 40s, and took him through his 50s. Branagh started playing the detective in 2008 when he was 47. “I’d just lost my parents,” he said, “and I felt a sense of transition in life into an area of responsibility and loss that was tangible. And a sense that even with the most optimistic expectations for life expectancy, which I have, you’re crossing into the second half, that you truly have to put away childish things. I was for the first time an orphan, and seeing a little ahead into what you might call the evening of life, perhaps the afternoon.”
That starts to explain the deep pull this character continues to have for Branagh, who is not quite ready to let him go. He has long wanted to do a movie version.
In the meantime, the Kenneth Branagh Theater Company is putting on “Romeo and Juliet” with James, Richard Madden and Derek Jacobi on London’s West End. And Branagh has been talking to Hiddleston about working together on “Much Ado About Nothing,” a Shakespeare play they both love. “We have no specific plans,” said Branagh, “but we are definitely having an ongoing conversation about other work we might do. I was impressed with his Coriolanus performance.”
Right now Branagh is prepping to direct and play another famous detective, Hercule Poirot, in Fox’s new version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery “Murder on the Orient Express,” from a screenplay adaptation by Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2”), produced by Mark Gordon, Simon Kinberg, and Ridley Scott.
Casting is under way, with Angelina Jolie rumored to be in talks: the Sidney Lumet 1974 global hit starred Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman (who won the Supporting Actress Oscar), Jacqueline Bisset, Colin Blakely, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave and Michael York. “I enjoy working with that kind of thoroughbred quality,” said Branagh. “We’re on a lavish scale, which was one reason to do this item, to make it feel like an embrace of big-period cinema, big-train cinema — it’s a big canvas. The idea which is so attractive is a romantic journey through Europe in the middle of the night, in which death and revenge are laid throughout. It’s a very gripping, romantic idea of being on a train underpinned by murder and mayhem—a heady mixture!”
I’ll take an upper berth.