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Branagh's Wallander: Not a Patch on the Original

09/07/2012 12:55 BST | Updated 07/09/2012 10:12 BST

I'm a big fan of Henning Menkel's Wallander novels and the Swedish television series that came out of them, and it's only because I still pine for the latter that I watched Kenneth Branagh's English version last night.

Like its predecessors, it's watchable and not without merits. Branagh portrays Henning Menkel's obsessed and depressive detective with morose conviction. The stark, moody cinematography gives the landscape and the characters a suitably washed-out melancholy hue, and the story was as grim as anyone familiar with Henning Menkel's Ystad has come to expect.

And yet these virtues are undermined by some remarkably flat and wooden dialogue, whose clunkiness is not helped by the fact that all the actors are British even though they are playing Swedish parts. There was obviously nothing the programme-makers could have done about this, other than reinvent the original story in a setting closer to home, as Christopher Nolan did quite successfully in transferring the Norwegian Scando-noir classic Insomnia to Alaska.

Instead Wallander feels as if it has been done the other way around, like a typical British TV crime drama transplanted to Sweden. The actors' curiously stilted and accent-less English often grates on the ear and the use of Swedish names and places requires the same suspension of disbelief required to listen to dubbed films. It also makes it difficult for the actors to flesh out their characters or make them entirely believable in a Swedish context.

Much of the time, Branagh and co. simply aren't convincing as police officers, and sound more like a group of Oxbridge academics conducting a research project rather than police engaged in a murder inquiry. The series is also limited in that it has been written too much as a vehicle for Branagh, and the other characters are marginalized to the point when they barely have any individual life at all.

All this is very different from the Swedish original, where even the regular minor characters became important components of the storyline, with tensions and relationships that were were clearly established, and where crimes were solved, not just because of Wallander's moments of individual genius, but through teamwork and collaboration and the gradual accumulation of small details.

And for all his moody, unshaven portrayal of a driven and traumatized detective haunted by his job and his personal demons, Branagh's performance pales in comparison with his Swedish counterpart Krister Henriksson.

Henriksson's Wallander had a complexity, humanity and nobility that is lacking in Branagh's more one-dimensional performance. His strikingly expressive face conveyed the sense of a man constantly saddened and outraged by the unspeakable acts he is forced to witness, and taking consolation in his music, his relationships with women, his dog, and the sea.

It became a standard feature of the original series that Wallander would end each programme looking out over the sea, sometimes accompanied by his daughter Linda, brilliantly played by Johanna Sällström. Until Sällström's tragic suicide in 2007, her character had become as crucial to the series as Wallander herself, and these meetings by the sea with her father added a poignant but oddly hopeful and reaffirming culmination to the brutal events that preceded them.

All this felt much truer to Menkel's original creation than the English version. One of the key themes in the Wallander novels is the moral disintegration of Swedish society and the sense that Menkel's Ystad has become the mirror of a country whose inhabitants - like Wallander himself - once believed it to be better than it was, and which has also become a mirror of violence, brutality and injustice in the wider world.

None of this is present in its workmanlike English equivalent, and watching it only reminded me of how good the Swedish version was, and made me wish they would make another.