In an unfortunate bit of timing, I had two miniseries come into the library at once. Both were BBC productions. Wallender has three 90 minute movies and stars Kenneth Branagh. I’s based on the mystery novel series by Swedish writer Henning Mankell. State of Play had six hour-long episodes and was the basis for the US film starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck that was released this week on DVD. Try as we might, we weren’t able to finish 450 minutes of BBC miniseries in a week that also included Mad Men, Project Runway and Top Chef. But with the long weekend, we managed and the library late fees aren’t too bad.
Branagh’s Wallender is a weary Swedish detective whose wife has left him because he was too involved with work. His daughter tries to get him out of his shell, but he’s confronted by such horror in his work that it’s understandably hard for him to heed advice to rest, stay home, relax and see other people. In “Sidetracked,” Wallender tries to help a scared young woman who then burns herself alive before his eyes. In “Firewall” a young girl commits a grisly murder, seemingly at random, while an apparently healthy man drops dead. And in “One Step Behind” he is so plagued by lack of sleep he doesn’t listen to a colleague who desperately needs his help.
Both “Sidetracked” and “Firewall” were good, if not great. The moody acting and the Swedish scenery are impressive, the mysteries less so. Branagh is utterly engaging as the harrowed and talented detective. “One Step Behind,” though, is a dud. Not only does it have Wallender acting stupid and insensitive because of lack of sleep, it has a horrible cliche of a villain–a jealous, vindictive, murderous transvestite. It’s a nasty sexist portrayal that further brings down this already weak entry in the series. I recommend the other two episodes, though, and will seek this series out if it comes back to PBS. The strengths outweigh the problems.
State of Play also had a serious flaw for me. The first five hours of it were absolutely riveting. David Morrissey shines especially, as the English Parliament member whose affair with an aide is exposed after she dies in an apparent accident. Polly Walker as his estranged wife also does great work. Their reporter friend, Cal McCaffrey, is trying to help them while also unravel the mystery that gets more complex with each episode and unfolds into a brain-twisting mass of government and big-business conspiracy and espionage. The ending of the final hour, though, undoes much of what was good about the episodes that went before. It may be an attempt at a surprise ending. The problem with these, though, is that they tend to negate all that went before. This audience member was left feeling cheated. This was fun to watch, and well done until the last episode. The US movie was not well reviewed, and I can’t imagine how they must have dumbed it down to fit into 2 hours. I recommend this miniseries, but with reservations about the ending.
In light of these, I’m reminded of a few film and literature cliches that need to be retired, including the evil transvestite and the surprise twist ending. I’d add to those the mystical person of color, who teaches an ignorant white person the deeper meaning of life, and the sacrificial mentally retarded character, whose death teaches others tolerance. Enough, already. Quit with the gimmicks, especially those that perpetuate stereotypes about those with already challenging lives.