Based on the hugely popular novels by Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, this three part series stars Kenneth Branagh as the eponymous police inspector Kurt Wallander, and is arguably the best crime drama that British TV has seen since Inspector Morse.

In Sidetracked, Wallander’s holiday plans are cut short when a teenage girl commits suicide before his eyes and a former government minister is butchered in a series of apparently motiveless murders. Wallander’s pursuit of the killer brings him to a vicious vice ring, leaving him and his loved ones in mortal danger. Firewall sees Wallander venture into a new sphere: cyberspace. Three deaths, a national blackout and a grim discovery at a power station lead him to a group of cyber terrorists with anarchic aims. The narrative device of One Step Behind is announced by the title. On the trail of a psychopath, Wallander always arrives on the scene just after the crime has happened. As Wallander goes about his duty, oblivious to the looming danger, you find yourself screaming inside your head “don’t go home!”.

Known as the ‘poet detective’, Kurt Wallander is gloom personified. A crapulous, grey looking figure, he appears to be always on the brink of emotional breakdown, shifting from sadness to tears in a single sustained shot. He is divorced, has a tempestuous relationship with his teenage daughter, Linda (Jeany Spark), and with his father Povel (David Warner) who is later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Wallander has the mindset of an over-analysing intellectual; he is incapable of separating the gruesome details of his detective work from the broader ennui of the creaking, despairing world that constantly impinges on his senses. Wherever he looks he finds evidence of social decay; of corruption, cruelty and compromised justice. Though he has spent his professional life investigating murders, every fresh crime opens a barely healed wound, each body another manifestation of a cankering society. Disaffectation is a common detective gimmick, but Branagh pulls it off, often giving his character far more humanity than the sometimes stilted script deserves.

In fact, the whole series is pervaded by a sense of nostalgia for the Sweden of the past; the land of consensus and courtesy that ended with the assassination of Olaf Palme in 1986. Once an advocate of respectful liberalism, the present Sweden has turned its freedoms into excesses. In a particularly striking scene, Wallander confronts a former colleague who is involved in people trafficking and forced prostitution. His excuse? The “grand social experiment” of social mobility and sexual liberation.

Watching events unfurl is a dazzling experience. The nostalgia, the claustrophobia, the eternal daylight of the Scandinavian summer are all reflected in a vibrant medley of colour, light and shadow. There are also plenty of nice blue and yellow sequences, just to remind us we’re in Sweden.

The series is clever in the way it handles its Swedishness. Filmed on location in Ystad, the interior sets were constructed by Anders Olin, who was also responsible for the the sets of the Swedish Wallander films with Krister Henriksson in the title role. Remote fishing huts and ergonomic offices are interspersed with forest scenes in midsummer and the glassy lakes of Skane, the southern Swedish region where the series is set. Police cars, shop fronts, even emails all display Swedish text. Even Branagh’s ashen colouring lends him a Scandinavian appearance.

The films are moving, sometimes far-fetched, often heartbreaking – and for once we’re presented with a detective who, far from being jaded by the sight of another dead body, inwardly mourns, at a loss to understand the cruelty that springs from the human soul.

According to Yellow Bird, the production company behind the films, a second series is in the pipeline, but filming won’t begin until after Branagh has finished directing the comic book adaptation Thor.

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