The new season of the detective series "Wallander" opens with a shocking murder, but the real stunner involves Kenneth Branagh's character Kurt Wallander: He actually smiles.
In "An Event in Autumn" (8 p.m. Sunday, WTTW; 3.5 stars), the first of three new films airing on PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery," the depressed Swedish detective with perpetual stubble has found a refuge from the horrors of his job. He's moved in to a quaint country home with his girlfriend, Vanja (Saskia Reeves), who he met in the last outing of the series, 2010's "The Fifth Woman," and her son.
He's so at peace here that he leaves the investigation of a pregnant Polish woman's death at his doorstep. Yet within minutes, their domestic bliss evaporates when Wallander's dog digs up a skeleton under the blackberry bush in the backyard.
"Is it fate?" Wallander moans to Vanja. She assures him it isn't, but fans of author Henning Mankell's novels, and this series based upon them, know better. Wallander, whose psyche already is ripped to shreds by what he witnesses on the job, can never escape that torment.
"I'm who I am because of what I do," he later admits.
No doubt. Wallander may hate how the job dooms everything else in his life, but his commitment to it is what makes him such a good detective. He and his partner Ann-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart) soon are sucked into an investigation involving missing women and forced prostitution, but his obsessive approach leads to a fatal mistake that will tear at him in the upcoming films, "The Dogs of Riga" (Sept. 16) and "Before the Frost" (Sept. 23).
These are difficult episodes to watch, partly because the gruesome nature of the crimes can feel like so many punches to the gut, but mostly because of the emotional toll they exact on the lead character. You truly feel for Wallander.
Branagh once again is magnificent in the role, making the flawed detective hugely appealing. He seems hopelessly overwhelmed by the constant barrage of bad news and worse atrocities around him. Yet Branagh reveals beneath Wallander's rumpled persona hints of the resolve and basic decency that keep him going.
The relentless bleakness would be my only quibble with the series; one doesn't often choose to feel as battered as the characters on screen. But you won't be able to turn it off.
At least the forensic pathologist in "An Event in Autumn" retains his sense of humor. "Thought you were trying not to take your work home with you," he jokes when the body is found in the detective's yard.
By then Wallander's smile has disappeared and the familiar, painful yet beautiful desolation once again smothers him--and our screens. Watch a sneak peek here.
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