Friday, April 9, 2010

Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ****
Directed by:
Niels Arden Oplev.
Written By: Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg based on the novel by Stieg Larsson.
Starring: Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist), Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander), Lena Endre (Erika Berger), Peter Haber (Martin Vanger), Sven-Bertil Taube (Henrik Vanger), Peter Andersson (The Lawyer Nils Bjurman), Ingvar Hirdwall (Dirch Frode), Marika Lagercrantz (Cecilia Vanger), Björn Granath (Gustav Morell), Ewa Fröling (Harriet Vanger).

Out of all the literary characters of the last decade, perhaps the one that most sticks out in my memory is Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larrsson’s Millennium trilogy (which is saying something, because the third book in the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, won’t be published here until May). She is a brilliant computer hacker, who has been beaten down by a series of brutally violent men in her life – starting with her father, and shooting out from there (which is why the direct translation for the Swedish of the first book is Men Who Hate Women, not The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Now in her early 20s, she makes her living as a researcher for a security firm, but is horrible with people because she will not talk to them. She hides herself behind her goth appearance, and has no real relationships to speak of. She is bi-sexual, and likes sex, but has never had what you call a proper “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”. It isn’t until she meets Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading investigative journalist for Millennium magazine, that she starts letting her guard down just a little bit at a time – and that’s scarier to her than maintaining her distance. She is a completely fascinating character, who proves more elusive just when you think you’re starting to get a handle on her.

Which is why, I looked forward to the cinematic version of Salander is Niels Areden Oplev’s Swedish film with a mixture of high anticipation, and trepidation. The worst thing you could do with this character – and the equally great series she is a part of – is to dumb it down, and make it more palatable for a mass movie audience (the whole idea of which is absurd of course – since the books were so uncompromising, but also huge best sellers, in and outside of Sweden). I know they plan on making an American version of this series as well, and I wonder if they’ll pull it off. But when it comes to the Swedish version, I can now breathe a sigh of relief. They didn’t screw it up. In fact, they made a masterful film out the first book in the series.

The movie opens with Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) being found guilty of slandering a prominent Swedish businessman, and being sentenced to a prison term of a couple of months, and ordered to pay a fine. But the real damage has already been done to his reputation as a journalist, and to the magazine he helped found, Millennium. When he is approached by a mysterious lawyer with asking him to meet with Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), another wealthy, powerful Swedish businessman, his curiosity gets the better of him and he agrees. It turns out that Vanger wants to hire him to look in the disappearance, and presumed murder, of his beloved niece nearly 40 years before. Blomkvist, who is desperate to get out of Stockholm, accepts the assignment which will take him to a nearly deserted island town. Salander knows about this, because before Vanger hired Blomkvist, he asked the security firm she works for to look into him – and she got the assignment. Unlike her other clients, she finds something fascinating about Blomkvist, and keeps the secret link to his computer running. When she finds out he is looking into a 40 year murder of a teenage girl, she is more fascinated – and eventually gets involved in helping Blomkvist investigate the murder herself.

This may sound like a typical murder mystery thriller – and in a very real way, it is. There are only a limited number of suspects, because the island was shut off from the mainland during the time the young woman disappeared, so in a way, this is like one of those country house murder mysteries – just 40 years removed from the crime.

But the movie, like the book before it, is more than just another murder mystery. It delves deeper into the psyche of its characters, and the reason behind the crimes involved, than most movies even dare to attempt. The theme of violence against women runs throughout the movie – and doesn’t just apply to the murder, but to Salander as well. Her violent, troubled past led her to a stint in an asylum, and she has been declared incompetent to handle her own affairs – so she has a guardian assigned to her. When her old one suffers a stroke, she is assigned someone new. Even Salander, with her troubled past, isn’t prepared for the sadistic cruelty that Bjurmann (Pettr Andersson) will inflict on her.

At the heart of the movie is the brilliant performance by Noomi Rapace as Salander. The rest of the cast is fine – excellent in fact – but it is Rapace who owns this movie. Salander is a difficult, almost impossible character to play, as she keeps everything so bottled up inside. But Rapace does a brilliant job at giving us glimpses into Salander – often with little more than a momentarily glance at the camera. It is a brilliant performance.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo benefits greatly from this performance, but the entire movie is a brilliantly structured, written and acted thriller. The other two books in the series have already been made into movies with Rapace redoing her role, and I cannot wait to see them. This is an early highlight of the year.

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