Sweden’s Favorite Detective Gets a Modern Makeover in Netflix’s ‘Young Wallander’
Netflix’s “Young Wallander” is the story of a naive and caring young cop on his way to becoming a cynical loner with anger issues. The six-part series stars Adam Pålsson as Kurt Wallander as the future iconic detective solves his first case. “Young Wallander” isn’t exactly a prequel, because the investigation takes place in the backdrop of day-glow bowling alleys and an electro pop soundtrack.
The series is set in the modern day, which means Netflix is banking on Pålsson growing into the role. We can only hope young Wallander will get to be that old. While Karl isn’t the world-weary, grizzled veteran audiences recognize, he is badly beaten down. By the second episode he’s knifed at a march, throttled by a drug dealer at a rave club called the Cube, and left to rot in a field. He looks more like young Frankenstein than the rookie who’s going to grow up to be Sweden’s most famous detective. Veteran Inspector Wallander was never played with a scar.
The series is an updated origin story for a character memorably played by Rolf Lassgård, Krister Henriksson and Kenneth Branagh. This is the year of classic TV character origin stories. HBO recently rebooted Perry Mason, and delved into the novels to fill in the background. The title character of Henning Mankell’s Nordic Noir series was a middle-aged, diabetic and disgruntled maverick. The series’ young Wallander already has a love of opera and loathing of coincidence of the book series protagonist. He’s a little bit of a hothead too.
Young Karl Wallander is a plodding detective of the old school. He is reminiscent of William Hurt’s Moscow militsiya officer Arkady Renko in the 1983 film “Gorky Park.” Karl is adept at making the most obvious observations sound reassuring as he echoes witnesses almost word for word in questioning. We meet Wallander as an officer, busting rich assholes for playing their music too loud. He lives alone in a small apartment of the Rosengard estate in Malmo. The place is a refugee community run by a gang of drug dealers and the rookie cop keeps his head down. Here he’s just a “pig.”
He gets made when a particularly gruesome crime happens within a block of his apartment. A teenage football player is killed in front of a crowd, which civilian Wallander is trying to control. A mystery man in a hoodie pulls duct tape off the kid’s mouth, and also pulls the pin from the grenade which was stuffed into it. It is a suspenseful scene, but the gore is caught at a distance. The series has its share of gang and race violence, and leaves quite a few wounds unhealed. But it’s not gratuitous, and that isn’t the focus.
The crime exacerbates right-wing anti-immigrant tensions and spurs racist marches in the city. Sweden is fractured by race hatred and far-right groups exploit bigotry and fear to rouse anti-immigrant violence. Malmo is a dangerous place where peril is an everyday danger. One of the heads of the Neo-Nazis who incites mass violence is a real estate agent and a father of three. Wallander can’t believe it. “He looks so normal,” he says. “What is normal these days?,” he is asked by a far more seasoned veteran.
The social backdrop is more of a plot device than commentary on racial issues in the country. As a white police officer, Wallander’s political conscience and sense of justice is often at odds with his job, and subtly with his gruff new partner Superintendent Hemberg (Richard Dillane) who probably can’t help but see young Wallander as a white savior wannabe looking for a green book.
Adam Pålsson captures the role physically and underacts consistently. But the dialogue only gives him a one-note character without much charisma. He occasionally lights up with detective brilliance. He telegraphs the inner connections as we see him pick up what the other cops missed. Pålsson catches the slow beginnings of what he will become. He can’t sleep and pours himself a few neat drinks, but he keeps an inner curiosity and naive sweetness.
Pålsson is the only actor speaking with his native accent. Most of the supporting cast is British and the dialogue is in English. While there are some Swedish accents, production is covered in a layer of emotional ice. Scandinavian noir is usually set in chilly regions, but the pre-COVID socially distanced Malmo neighborhood feels warm compared with the character interplay. Wallander’s partner, and best friend, Reza (Yasen Atour) barely blinks an eye when he learns he’s been skipped over for promotion because Karl happens to live near the crime scene.
Wallander declares he’s done with midnight booty calls halfway through the first episode, so don’t expect much in the way of adult content. The only nudity comes when the human rights worker Mona (Elise Chappell) makes Kurt take off his shirt once an episode. It’s usually only to stop the bleeding which doesn’t add to the sexual chemistry even when they do have sex.
The mix of murder investigation and terrorist paranoia, however, does produce a propulsive reaction. From the opening hand grenade through the chants of “Sweden belongs to Swedes,” the divisive backdrop makes “Young Wallander” suspenseful and watchable. There are cliffhangers galore and an evil, wealthy inner elite, but the series doesn’t break new ground. It works as a police procedural, when it could have been a coming-of-age re-imagining.
Kurt Wallander is an eager young cop who has everything stripped from him over six episodes, but never takes his eyes off the investigation. He skips out of the emergency room and has no time for therapy. At one point in the series, his superior Frida Rask (Leanne Best) confesses she was reluctant to take him on the case because she wanted to spare him the inevitable trauma the job brings. The undercurrent of lost innocence should exert a stronger pull. All we see is how this rookie cop does his job, even as he’s legally too close to the interested parties to be able to do it. “Young Wallander” is a competent detective series. Maybe a little too competent.
“Young Wallander” begins streaming Sept. 3 on Netflix.