Home > Reviews, Television > TV Quickshots # 23

TV Quickshots # 23

Hinterland (Y Gwyll) (S4C/BBC; 2013-Present)

Written, filmed, and aired in both English and Welsh, Hinterland is set in and around Aberystwyth, a seaside holiday destination and university town known for the relative isolation of its location in Wales. It follows the tradition of British mysteries that hew to whodunit formulas while simultaneously imparting a sense of the subconscious cultural geography of a certain time and place in the country. DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) and his team solve unnerving murders in their forbidding countryside with echoes of devil-fearing superstitions, creepy voyeurism, and the backwoods gothic.

hinterlandThe latter tone predominates, fulfilling the rough-hewn promise of the show’s English title and painting the region as the Appalachians of the British Isles. Its Welsh title, Y Gwyll, translates as “The Dusk”, a more poetic moniker and less of a backhanded shot at the perceived parochial nature of Wales and its inhabitants. Indeed, although Hinterland is often strikingly shot, the Welsh landscape and the people found in it are wounded, isolated, their footsteps haunted by poverty and painful pasts. Mathias is saddled with just such a painful past, although the character development is such that little time is reserved for delving into his background. Generally, one great thudding hint into the lead’s backstory is allowed per episode, to be forgotten about or at least not further pursued in any meaningful way.

Mathias fares better than his co-stars, who remain investigative machines with only the barest personality quirks to distinguish them. An early gesture is made towards exploring some facet of institutional corruption or collusion: Mathias’ Chief Superintendent has some close ties to important community figures and swoops in every now and again to try to divert his DCI’s attention away from one suspect or another. But this angle never adds up to anything substantial, and neither does Hinterland, for all of its hard-bitten Welsh gothic quality.

Wallander (BBC; 2008-Present)

A very similar detective-mystery concoction to Hinterland, Wallander is both better acted and more socially resonant. It’s also distinctly awkward, almost by design. Adapted from Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s novels about a frumpy, personally turbulent police inspector in the mid-sized town of Ystad (which were also made into films and then were the basis for new stories for television in Sweden), the UK production is set and (mostly) shot in Sweden, and the characters all have Swedish names and (one supposes) Swedish cultural contexts. But they are played by British actors who speak English, often with particular regional inflections and expressions.

A viewer may never really get past this basic incongruence, but if they do, Wallander is a well-made, often intriguing and occasionally nearly transcendent televised detective fiction. A gone-to-seed Kenneth Branagh plays Kurt Wallander with a distinctly worn drowsiness and a simmering psychological disquiet that manifests as quiet Nordic desperation. He’s generally superb, and the murder mysteries he solves often are good as well, penetrating hidden, dark depths beneath the hard-frozen social democratic veneer of Sweden.

Well-shot (as most BBC productions of any ambition manage to be) and perfectly involving, Wallander doesn’t quite take full advantage of all of its pieces. Like Hinterland, Wallander’s fellow investigators are mere ciphers, mostly present to bounce ideas off and provide sounding boards for necessary exposition. This is common enough to the genre, but sparks some disappointment when an actor of the talents of Tom Hiddleston is wasted among the supporting cast (although his work on the first two series did help Hiddleston get the role of Loki in the Branagh-director Thor movie, thus freeing him from thankless support work in British television genre exercises). But generally speaking, Wallander is a strong television mystery serial with a particular sense of place and tone.

Categories: Reviews, Television
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