We’ve reached a point in the ceaseless creation of content for the expanding array of streaming services and cable that defies forecasts. There’s a lot of non-standard material available. And it would be begrudging to whine and sneer because conventional TV creations will be limited for a while, thanks to the pandemic shutdown.
In terms of what’s given the green light, it’s not a matter of anything-will-do, it’s a matter of any premise is worth probing as a possibility, especially if linked to any known story or character. This year we’ve already had HBO’s Perry Mason, an adult and macabre take on the early career of the smooth lawyer made popular on TV in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now comes Young Wallander (Netflix), an unexpected and polarizing series that imagines the early career of Henning Mankell’s much-loved Kurt Wallander, the melancholy Swedish police inspector played in the BBC version by Kenneth Branagh and in the original Swedish version by Krister Henriksson. It’s an odd creation and some advice here: Put your prejudices aside and just go along with it.
How polarizing is it? Well, prejudice abounds because it’s actually an understatement to call earlier portrayals of Wallander “much-loved.” In Britain, The Telegraph’s review went all high-dudgeon and dismissed it as “the worst TV drama of the streaming era.”
It is nothing of the sort. Created by Ben Harris, with the late Mankell’s blessing, it’s a very British crime drama and a pensive character study. The first thing you have to accommodate is that it is not, literally, about Kurt Wallander in his youth in bygone days. It’s set in present-day Sweden (filmed in Latvia, mind you), in Malmo, a place seething with anti-immigrant rage and the violence of white supremacists, plus your usual criminal activity.
This Kurt Wallander (Adam Palsson) is a lowly patrol cop dealing with minor crimes along with partner and buddy Reza (Yasen Atour). He lives quietly and alone in a housing project, among immigrants, where nobody knows he’s a cop. As the propulsive story opens, he sees local boy Ibra (Jordan Adene), a budding soccer star, in a furious argument with another teenager. Later that night Wallander witnesses the kid who argued with Ibra tied to a fence, and then a stunning incident of murder happens.
Local detectives are all over the case and Wallander wants to help out because he knows the area intimately. This he does with quiet patience and it’s appreciated, with Superintendent Hemberg (Richard Dillane) declaring he wants Wallander promoted. Kurt is aghast because his buddy Reza is supposed to get promoted, not him.
What unfolds is a tangle of anti-immigrant riots, knife violence and multiple coming-of-age moments for Wallander. He’s been a careful man, given to isolation and sadness – his only relationship is with a woman who answers his occasional calls for casual sex – and now he’s obliged to deal with complex emotional responses that are beyond his experience.
It takes a leap of imagination to accept Young Wallander if you have had a keen admiration for Henning Mankell’s creation. The series would be far easier to embrace if it didn’t have the title “Young Wallander,” because it is essentially remote from the books and the TV series. What is being done here is a well-crafted British procedural that connects to Mankell’s creation in a floating way. It’s a character study of a young man who might become a world-weary middle-aged detective, observant and given to depression because of the appalling people he’s encountered in his life.
As a British-style procedural it’s rather good, well-paced and with very little time-wasting exposition. The acting is uniformly excellent and Adam Palsson is quietly compelling as Wallander, a young man with unknowable traits and a sense of decency that’s more pragmatic than heroic.
If you are intent on seeing Young Wallander as an interpretation of Mankell’s work, it is bound to fail in your eyes. It’s no interpretation; it’s an original work, really, and, since so much of it is about intolerance, your best bet is to put your intolerance aside and enjoy the drama. Just let it take you where it is leading you, and savour it.
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