The final series of Wallander on Masterpiece Mystery has an uncharacteristic start. For one thing, our Swedish detective friend Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) is in South Africa for some sort of international police conference. More uncharacteristic than that, Wallander is soaking in the sunshine, jogging, inhaling…smiling.
“I have been a police officer for 40 years,” he types on his laptop. Then he backspaces and corrects: “nearly 40 years.”
If this were anyone else, we might think we’re watching a man ready to glide into his golden years. But this is Wallander, a man of steady habits, most of them bad. He doesn’t glide.
Over cocktails on a veranda, a local police official surprises Wallander by asking for his help with a case. A Swedish woman living in South Africa has gone missing. The police haven’t been able to find her. Her husband, also Swedish, is kicking up a fuss. Can Wallander intercede to settle the husband down?
We, wise viewers, already know that things don’t look promising for the missing woman. Having taken a wrong turn while driving, she stopped to ask for directions, wandered into a decrepit building, and encountered a man with blood on his hands. When something like that happens at the start of a show, you can be fairly confident it won’t end well for the nice lady.
Wallander, of course, knows none of what we know. So he goes to talk with the woman’s husband, Axel Hedeman, to find out what’s what. (If I might digress for a sec, Axel is played by Alex Ferns, who EastEnders fans from the early 2000s will remember as Trevor, a serial wife-beater and one of the baddest baddies in EastEnders history. For what that’s worth.)
Axel and Inga work with ex-offenders. She’s a teacher. She was on her way to pick up a donation of books. She never arrived at her destination. Wallander hops into his rental car to follow her trail, using the hand-drawn map Axel gives him—the map Axel didn’t give to the South African police. For what that’s worth.
This isn’t Sweden. It’s dusty, sun-washed South Africa, but the desolate, beautiful visual feeling of Wallander is still present: flat, golden expanses; windmills turning rhythmically, ceaselessly; solitary automobiles traveling on ribbons of roadway; lonesome farms that should be peaceful but somehow tend to be full of menace.
When Wallander arrives at the place where we last saw Inga, he finds no trace of her. But, he does find two dismembered male fingers on the ground. Now, Kurt Wallander, conference attendee, is back to being Kurt Wallander, detective on the job. He teams with Sergeant Grace Mthembu (South African actress Bonnie Mbuli) to find Inga Hedeman.
Axel, who had a police record in Sweden, is a likely suspect, but it’s safe to assume that the guilty party could just as well be a guy who’s missing two of his fingers. That would be Victor Mabasha (Lemogang Tsipa), a low-level gang member who seems more like a victim than a killer, even when he’s kidnapping Wallander at gunpoint.
If you read The White Lioness by Henning Mankell, it’s quite possible that none of the above sounds familiar to you. Scriptwriter James Dormer (who also created and wrote the series Beowulf that airs on Esquire Network) has taken the bare bones of Mankell’s 1990’s novel and recast it for the present day. And by “bare bones,” I mean it all starts with a woman losing her way while driving and then mysteriously disappearing, there’s someone named Victor Mabasha, and the plot involves South Africa.
Still, the spirit of Mankell’s Wallander novels remains. The author had strong views on religion and politics, and malfeasance in both. Those subjects come into play here to a greater or lesser degree. Mankell mentioned real people and events in his novel. Here the players and events are fictionalized. Wallander usually works with plenty of support. Here he’s a bit of a maverick.
It’s a fine welcome back for Kenneth Branagh as Wallander.
Leslie Gilbert Elmanis the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.