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Kenneth Branagh on 'Wallander'

'He seems to be going through life at sort of a disadvantage,' the actor says of the Swedish sleuth he plays on 'Masterpiece Mystery!'

May 09, 2009|Susan King

Kenneth Branagh has come full circle.

In 1988, PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" audience watched the fresh-faced young talent from Northern Ireland in the World War II drama "The Fortunes of War," which also starred his first wife, Emma Thompson.

The 48-year-old Branagh is now back on PBS in the three-part "Masterpiece Mystery!" series "Wallander," which premieres Sunday.

Based on the internationally bestselling novels by Henning Mankell, the series revolves around the brilliant -- and brilliantly flawed -- Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander, who solves complex, often brutal cases in the seaside town of Ystad, Sweden.

"I read crime fiction for pleasure," said the Oscar-nominated actor-director ("Henry V") during a recent interview in Universal City.

He decided to see whether he could get the rights to the stories. "Most of my experiences of development and trying to get the rights [to projects] are fairly sort of knotty and thorny," he said. "I didn't have high hopes."

But it seems everyone was interested in Kurt Wallander, including Swedish producers who wanted to do an English-language version, as well as British producers and the BBC. "We all converged on it at the same time," said Branagh, who is also a producer on the series.

Branagh's Wallander has graying hair, a double chin, three days' growth of a beard and unkempt attire. Separated from his wife, he has a tenuous relationship with his young adult daughter, his father is suffering from Alzheimer's and his own blood sugar is heading toward diabetes.

The series, which premiered last year in England, won the British Academy Television Award for best drama series, and Branagh earned best actor from the Broadcasting Press Guild Television and Radio Awards.

There was initially some debate as to whether "Wallander" should become a feature film. But Branagh thought the more poetic and ruminative qualities of the stories would get lost on the big screen. He also presumed the movie would get lost in the multiplexes.

"I thought it might be tough in the current climate to produce a film with somebody like me in it and expect it would last much longer than an opening weekend. Just because our business is incredibly brutal," Branagh said.

Ystad is very much its own character in the series -- "Wallander" was filmed in various locations in southern Sweden.

"People pass through it," Branagh said. "It's transient. It's a very small port and the landscape [outside the town] is bleak and empty."

And Wallander's own life is rather bleak and empty.

"He seems to be going through life at sort of a disadvantage," said Branagh.

"He has this great gift, which is his detective intuition, but in every other area of his life, he clumsily stumbles from one disaster to another. He also wears a little heart on his sleeve. There is a guileless, unguarded quality that develops. He is superbly fitted in his professional life to be successful, but on the other side of his life, there is a social autism."

Even before production began, Branagh would frequent Swedish cafes in London with the series' director, Philip Martin, to get accustomed to the nation's personality.

"There is a tidy mind there," Branagh said about Swedes. "It's a tidy nation that makes you feel different when you walk their streets or go in their rooms. I wonder if they are surrounding themselves physically with a spareness and cleanliness in order to allow more space in their minds to allow themselves to deal with dark and deep [matters]."

Branagh is already on board to make more installments of "Wallander," but it won't be for a while -- he is currently in Los Angeles wearing his director's hat on Marvel Studios' "Thor," which goes into production later this year.

"I am excited," he said. "I have felt very consciously in the last few years: I will follow those things which I have been passionately interested in."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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