Who knew Sweden was such a hotbed of murder, mayhem and sexual deviancy? (OK, maybe that last one, but that’s part of its tourism pitch.) Still, murder has seldom looked quite as breathtakingly picturesque as in “Wallander” — a “Masterpiece Mystery!” adaptation of Henning Mankell’s bestselling novels. Kenneth Branagh stars in three adventures as the world-weary detective, whose personal woes practically occupy as much time as the grisly crimes. In that respect, given the idyllic setting, the franchise bears a resemblance to CBS’ “Jesse Stone,” which also proves that emotional baggage is only a small hindrance to stopping crime.
“Sidetracked,” the first of three stories, doesn’t waste time on introductions, as both the seaside town of Ystad and its champion, Branagh’s Kurt Wallander, encounter a teenage girl who engages in a grim act of self-immolation in a stunningly vivid field of crops. Indeed, while the template for the show is familiar, its vibrant color palette and atmospheric settings (with kudos to “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) neatly distinguish it from just about everything else on television.
A series of hatchet murders involving prominent citizens follows, and it’s perhaps best to ignore the high body count relative to the town’s modest size, which threatens to de-populate Ystad before they finish adapting the nine books. The bottom line is that Wallander grows increasingly agitated trying to identify a common link to the killings, even as he grapples with the arrival of his grown daughter (Jeany Sparks) and a strained relationship with his aging father (the wonderful David Warner).
Wallander’s colleagues barely register in the first movie, and there’s little point in fretting about the particulars of the whodunit — or, for that matter, the Swedish setting, since the British cast wisely dispenses with the pretense of adopting accents, letting the striking scenery and names establish the venue.
Marking Branagh’s first recurring dramatic TV work, the character proves an especially good fit for the Shakespearean actor — smart, driven and ruefully funny, yet personally tormented, with a broken marriage and the hollow-eyed look of someone who has witnessed far too much misery. It’s a familiar formula, to be sure, but handled with enough panache and conviction to invest the BAFTA-honored pic series with an element of freshness.
The second and third installments (subtitled “Firewall” and “One Step Behind”) continue along this dour path — featuring a high-tech computer crime, a death that directly touches the precinct and Wallander’s development of an unexpected (but very common) malady. The third pic actually might be the best of the lot, though each has its charms.
In the second film, Wallander’s daughter sympathetically asks him, “Does there always have to be something more important than you having a life?” Although there’s little mystery in the answer, it’s the road traveled that makes “Wallander” more than worthy of its “Masterpiece” imprimatur.