"Ystad - the Texas of Sweden..."
Kenneth Branagh stars in the first of three feature-length versions of Henning Mankell's best-selling detective novels. If (like us) you're not familiar with the series, then you're in something of a minority - well in the rest of Europe anyhow, where they've sold around 25 million copies. There's even a Wallander Tour in the real town of Ystad.
Initially it's a pretty unusual set-up. We're in Sweden, but everyone's speaking English. They don't even bother with anything like that bit at the start of The Hunt For Red October where they're talking in Russian for about a minute before zooming in and then letting Sean Connery go back to Scottish for the rest of the film.
Then, until someone pulls out a mobile, you could be forgiven for thinking it was set in the 1950s - there's a kind of otherworldly, timeless quality to the country setting - it looks like a modern European country, but because Sweden's been so stylish for so long, it's hard to place when it actually is. Even the police station looks like a *Wallpaper shoot.
But after the first ten minutes or so, you get used to the environment, and don't really notice until you're introduced to another Lars or Nyberg etc. The occasional nods to recent Swedish history - immigration, permissiveness, politics etc - add another dimension to an intelligent, well-paced story. No Ikea or meatballs though.
The first in the trilogy running on BBC1 over three Sunday nights (and then out on DVD after), Sidetracked, introduces Kurt Wallander - divorced, living alone, trying to get on with his dad and daughter - no quirky character traits like Monk or Life here - just the stuff of life, played out realistically. That's not to suggest that it's boring, or soapy - far from it - just that it's played in the realm of the real as much as possible, which is what makes it work so well (even when it's a gruesome case involving scalping, three dead men in apparently unrelated cases, and a young woman who sets herself on fire).
For all the cliches about Branagh being the ultimate luvvie you kind of forget sometimes what got him that reputation in the first place: he is a really great actor. With Wallander he seems to have finally found the perfect character to fit his style.
It's a film that's moving, exciting, dark and occasionally heartbreaking - and for once we're presented with a policeman who's not jaded by the sight of another dead body, but rather takes it totally to heart, finding it almost impossible to understand how a human could kill another human.
Branagh is joined by David Warner as his dad (great casting, and nice to see the Tron/Company Of Wolves star given such a meaty role); Sarah Smart as his assistant (she was the hanger-on woman in the excellent Five Days last year) and there's a small role for Skins generation one star Nicholas Hoult in the first episode.
As a sidenote, Wallander was shot using the new Red digital cameras - and it looks great, like digital has finally evolved to find its own aesthetic, in the same way that 35mm or Super8 have their own distinct looks.
Sidetracked is followed by Firewall and One Step Behind if you're familiar with the series - if they're as good as the first, this is a series that should run and run (as long as they can get Branagh back to TV after Thor).