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Wallander, Writing Misery

I’ve very much enjoyed the new season of Wallander, on the BBC. I prefer Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Kurt Wallander over any of the international versions. What’s more, this adaptation is visually beautiful. The unusual shots, the strange colour tone, the wonderful vistas – it’s immensely pleasing to the eye.

I am a big fan of Henning Mankell’s books, on which the series is based, and Branagh seems to fit the character perfectly. He might be a bit too handsome and lean, but in terms of the psychology, he’s there. There was an interesting interview a while ago where he talked about that misery:

And I felt as though my skin was sagging. I felt as though the gravitational weight of Wallander was starting to have an impact.ā€™ When filming finished on the first season, Branagh had to recuperate. That is, undertake a burst of exercise, of stretching. ‘I felt as though I had to uncoil from this preoccupation with dark matter. And two weeks after Iā€™d finished I felt about three inches taller and six inches slimmer.ā€™

I wonder, though, why Wallander’s misery is so engaging. It goes way beyond feeling sorry for him – I remember reading one of the books years ago and the level of misery thrown at Wallander almost became comical. Maybe with crime series the audience has surrendered itself to expecting a certain level of blood and gore, yet that’s still not really what Wallander’s about. The gore is not dwelt upon, yet the mood remains intense and heavy throughout. When there is violence, it’s used sparingly but powerfully (I reckon there’s another blog to be written on that topic).

Is the appeal of such misery simply rooting for someone to do well in life? Is it the search for where someone’s breaking point can be found? As someone who creates characters, I find it difficult to create genuine Wallander-scale misery. Sure, bad things can happen to your characters – a relationship breakdown, loss of career, and so on – but this is something else entirely. This is relentlessly depressing, remarkably bleak stuff, yet it’s so engaging. It’s not merely misery for the sake of it, either – the misery is compelling, meaningful and conveys a sense of direction for Wallander’s character.

But how can such a depressing character be so successful? There’s no wish-fulfilment here, no happy endings for him. Where’s the appeal in this? I’m not sure I understand myself, but I would say that a lot of it is down to that part of the craft of writing that can’t be explained – both from Henning Mankell and the screenwriters who bring such misery to life (apparently Mankell has worked closely with the screenwriters). I find the new series irresistible, for its cinematography, acting, but most of all knowing that I’m going to be dragged into a dark place for a while. Such drama makes us feel something profound.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.