Taking Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) out of his comfortable Swedish home ground and landing him in South Africa could be seen as a risk; surely part of the appeal of Wallander is its relentless Scandi miserablism, so can the appeal be maintained in the South African sun?
Perhaps it is Wallander’s personal gloom that attracts the criminal element in Sweden, but now he seems to have cheered up a bit – he’s on a conference in Capetown, is running, clean-shaven, off the booze, and is even cracking the odd smile.
But when teacher Inga Hedeman (Tessa Jubber) a Swedish national (we know that because she has a sticker on her dashboard), disappears after wandering inexplicably around a deserted township, her distraught husband, social worker Axel (Alex Ferns) makes a scene at the conference, and the local cops call in Wallander to placate him.
Unsurprisingly, Wallander isn’t content with just having a word with the husband, and sets off on his own investigation.
Implausibly, he wanders around the most dangerous parts of Capetown with very little trouble, ignoring the language barrier, going deep into the townships, questioning the locals, driving into the veldt and finding clues everyone else missed, including maps, a crucifix, targets peppered with bullet-holes, and even some severed fingers.
Obviously, Inga saw something she shouldn’t, and has been bumped off; the trail leads to an exploited young gang member, who has been groomed to carry out a political assassination.
So who’s the killer? Inga’s husband has form (well, actor Alex Ferns played Little Mo-basher Trevor in Eastenders). Other suspects include a brutish copper, a vicious mercenary, and two rival politicians, the firebrand Mewiya and the prosperous Khulu.
In the course of the investigation, Wallander survives being shot at by a helmeted biker, who he later kills; talks an assassin out of bumping off his target; drives his liaison Sgt. Mthembu (Bonnie Mbuli) up the wall, and successfully delivers a speech to the conference. None of this seems terribly in character for Wallander.
When it turns out that the villain is Khulu, a Nelson Mandela-type whose greed for tourist money has corrupted his political ideals, we suspect that Wallander may sink into his familiar depression; but he seems to draw a positive message of hope from the whole affair.
Branagh’s Wallander has perhaps never been as compelling and convincing as his Swedish antecedents; they look authentically distressed and hangdog, while he just looks like he needs a shave and a cuppa. Four years after we last saw Wallander, it’s like he’s a different character; his relationship with his daughter is better than ever, and there seems to be some hope for his personal happiness. We know it can’t last.
Writer Henning Mankell died last year, but lived long enough to see the last of his Wallander books filmed. He spent a good part of his life in Africa, so he was apparently particularly pleased to see The White Lioness adapted.
Yet when Inspector Morse went to Australia, the contrast of his gloom to the sunlit surroundings was played to some comedy effect; here, Wallander hardly seems a fish out of water at all. At no time does he seem to have any problem adjusting to his surroundings or dealing with the African character. What, then, is achieved by the change of scene?
At one point Wallander is given a little speech about how Sweden tries to treat everyone well, but perhaps that’s because Wallander represents a pre-refugee crisis country. His speech to the would-be assassin suggests that there is hope for Africa, but this seems to be undermined by the revelation that the villain come from the black community. Our money was on the brutish white copper.
As we move towards the last of the Wallanders, we already have portents of some decline; Kurt seems unable to write his speech, and he clicks off and imagines he can hear the comforting ocean when he’s meant to be concentrating on the conference.
The final two episodes, A Lesson in Love and A Troubled Man, are adapted from the last Wallander novel, and are reassuringly set in Ystad. We look forward to seeing Kurt back on his home ground, surrounded by his gloomy colleagues and succumbing to the local climate.