Originally Posted June 25th, 2010 [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utERS_CJCJQ]
It’s Christmas Eve in Stockholm, and disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is given an intriguing proposition: learn what happened to the heir of the industrious Vangar family, who disappeared forty years ago, in exchange for the proof that can restore his name. A hesitant Mikael accepts, but before long, he becomes tangled in the Vangar clan's long history of lies, betrayal, and abuse. As the trail of the missing girl leads deeper into the past, Mikael is aided by an unlikely ally, the enigmatic and volatile computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander. The two join common cause in a race against time to expose the disturbing truth about what happened to Harriett Vangar 36 years ago.
If this sounds like a crackerjack premise for a novel, then it shouldn’t surprise you that Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become a worldwide phenomenon since being released in Sweden five years ago. An engrossing and character-driven mystery, the pulpy tale is punctuated with moments of extreme violence. It is the first of Larsson’s trilogy of Millennium novels, which have sold more than 21 million copies. The sales figures alone were probably all the convincing Swedish production company Yellow Bird needed to release a theatrical version. The film, which saw wider release in March of this year, has gone on to strong financial success.
I went into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo like I imagine most other audience members did, having read and enjoyed the book, curious to see if the brooding prose and slick pace could survive an adaptation. In print, Larsson’s novel is a thoroughly absorbing thriller, mainly due to its two sympathetic and engaging lead characters. Mikael is a charming yet dedicated journalist, who’s as mindful of his various relationships as he is in exposing corruption in the Swedish market. His easygoing nature makes him immediately likeable, while his idealism is easy to root for. It’s important that Mikael is so well-written, because otherwise, he would be totally eclipsed by his partner. The titular punk rocker/computer genius immediately grabs the reader’s attention with an appearance that’s equal parts Aeon Flux and Brandon Lee's The Crow. Lisbeth’s fashion sense is just the packaging of a scarred and hardened youth whose horrific past has left her capable of just about anything. Make no mistake, she’s as dangerous as she is beguiling.
It’s unfortunate, then, that these characters, who are easily the best part of Larsson’s first novel, don’t translate nearly as well to the screen. Mikael, as played by Michael Nyqvist, comes off as more of a pushover than a crusading journalistic champion. In the novel, Mikael agrees to work for Henrik Vangar because he is promised a means of reviving his tarnished name. In the film, no mention of this is given, so we’re left to assume he takes the job because he just doesn’t have much else going on at the time. Lisbeth fares much better, and Noomi Rapace should be commended for her work. Rapace, whose background is mostly in theatre, underplays Lisbeth in the best possible way, intriguing the audience with her matter-of-fact dialogue without ever becoming trite. She’s the immediate source of attention whenever on screen. However, without the insight provided by a narrator, the film can’t portray the smaller details that make the protagonists compelling, and in Lisbeth’s case, the character is established through sheer blunt force.
It’s made abundantly clear when we first meet Lisbeth that she’s no ordinary twenty-four year-old. References to sexual abuse by her father give the audience some idea of what makes her the way she is. The first twenty minutes of her screen time involve Lisbeth suffering and then exacting revenge on another authority figure who has betrayed her. The scenes are never exploitative but are for the most part unnecessary. Director Niels Arden Oplev treats the subject matter frankly, but doesn’t seem to know when the audience has had enough. In the book this portion comes off as episodic, where it helps to establish the severity of the suffering Lisbeth has endured and how ready she is to exact vengeance. On screen, this diversion adds nothing to the plot of the film and instead devolves into two very troubled people traumatizing each other for twenty minutes, with perhaps the promise of a payoff once the other two books in the trilogy are filmed. At 152 minutes in length, it seems clear where some cuts could have been made.
Without the presence of the two leads, it falls to the mystery driving the story to pick up the slack. Much of the fun of any who-dunnit comes from building your own theories on what happened and who’s the bad guy. What makes this particular crime intriguing is that the culprit must have been a member of the Vangar family, who at the time were all isolated together in their family estate. However, no time is used to cast suspicion on the range of suspects, with the revelation of the perpetrator’s identity offering little in the way of catharsis. Between extensive shots of computer screens and old photographs, there’s no time for the audience to formulate their own theories. This is just another core problem with adapting the plot, since much of it involves pouring over old files and digging through archives, which doesn’t exactly translate to gripping cinema. It also doesn’t help that Jacob Groth’s score seems only capable of alternating between two painfully long notes, which is much more grating than it is suspenseful.
To its credit, aside from a few aforementioned scenes, the film is always visually appealing. Both the darkened streets of Stockholm and the frozen countryside add to the bleak tone, and all the actors are wonderfully cast. Every character looks like a real person, which adds greatly to the believability of the story. It’s likely that most investigative journalists look more like Nyqvist than Robert Redford. It’s also refreshing to see people in a movie using actual computers as opposed the fictional ones, where the only desktop items are all titled MAIL and INTERNET, and the command console is just a single keystroke away (granted, it looks like every Macbook shown can manipulate photos with incredible versatility. Is there such a thing as IEnhance?).
There is talk already of a Hollywood remake which will surely fix some issues with the Swedish version, but almost certainly ruin the original's charm. No doubt the sexual violence will be downplayed but with Daniel Craig and Kirsten Stewart rumoured as leads, whatever vague sense of realism the original had is doomed. This is definitely one of those cases where the material will stick with you much longer on paper than on celluloid.
3 out of 5
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev