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A teen girl sits shivering in a field of tall yellow flowers. Is it coincidence that it's a field of what we call canola, but the Swedes go ahead and refer to as "rape"? When Police Inspector Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) approaches her and identifies himself, she douses herself in gasoline and burns before the horrified man's eyes.

The BBC's Wallander movies certainly grip from the get-go. But there's also a leisurely pace to them, as much trying to make points about the Swedish society in which they're set as solving the crimes with which Wallander and his crew get entangled.

Shot with the RED digital camera, the films have a combination of high resolution with soft focus that makes them seem like a throwback to seventies films, right down to the production design. Wallander walks his beat in a Sweden that has paid the price for an ugly undercurrent to the promise of social progress. It's a little arrested in time, and one teen in the second installment, "Firewall," claims that "…there is no future."

While feeling Swedish yet with British accents, that feeling of loss and being lost knows no boundaries. Kurt Wallander is a cop we can identify with, not some super-genius investigator, but rather a plodder. Death rattles him, and a gentle grief seems to always be roiling underneath Branagh's face, ready to vomit forth when things seem to be one tragedy too many.

There seems to be a focus on the next generation, with Wallander awkwardly trying to build a relationship with his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) and mentor the callow detective Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston). And even when the crimes they focus on aren't about children, they seem to be. In addition to that girl in the rape field, the second film begins with two blood-soaked teens walking away from a taxicab, and their disaffection drives the plot.

Some of those plots, obviously, aren't going to be easy to be one step ahead of as you adjust to the local references and turns that require an understanding of Swedish society. Instead, what will hold you is a solid performance by Branagh, since it really is his show, with able supporting turns. In the first film, "Sidetracked," we get a bonus of several scenes with David Warner as Wallander's father, and for theater geeks, it's something to watch two seminal Hamlets share the screen, ferociously tearing into each other.

And yet it's subtle, not about scene chewing. The ensemble work is top-notch. Of course, for readers of Fanboy Planet, Wallander is also worth picking up because Branagh pulled Hiddleston out of this cast and tapped him to play Loki in the upcoming Thor film. Though the character of Martinsson isn't evil at all, Hiddleston has a sinuousness that could easily stretch into the God of Mischief.

Watching the extras on this DVD reminds me of the Eddie Izzard line - "do you people even know there are other countries?" They're not just a glimpse at another culture; it's an education to discover that these well-made television films, shown in the U.S. under the "Masterpiece Mystery" banner, are adapted from an internationally best-selling series of Swedish crime novels.

Apparently for the U.K., these were a very big deal, the first time the "Wallander" novels had been filmed in English after 22 Swedish films. What you'll notice in the extras over and over is how big a deal everybody involved thinks it is. Focus instead on the films included here; they're good thrillers with good actors, and later you can pick up the books.

UPDATE 5/6/2011: How the heck did I miss this? A second set of Wallander hit stores -- so you can get double the Branagh/Hiddleston.

Derek McCaw

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