It’s nice to see the US is not the only country that automatically turns best-selling books into movies. Or is it bad to see that the habits of the American film industry are infiltrating other countries? Either way, the UK recently saw the release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or to give its original title Män som hatar kvinnor (Men who hate Women). Finally released here, around 18 months after its European debut, this Swedish thriller is an adaption of the first book in the best selling trilogy Millennium, by the reporter and author Stieg Larsson. Larsson died before any of his books were published so never saw the successes of his series – the books have become best-sellers across the world and won many major awards. Three films have already been completed, but the UK (and US) are only just catching up. Without any surprise, a US remake has been announced, but for now, lets concentrate on what has, historically, always been the superior film – the foreign language original.
Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative reporter (allegedly somewhat autobiographical of Larsson) who loses a major libel case against a famous businessman. Sentenced to a short period in jail, Mikael resigns from his post at a magazine, so as not to implicate them in the scandal. While awaiting the start of his sentence, he is contacted by the mysterious aristocrat Henrik Vanger who asks him to investigate the disappearance and likely murder of his niece 40 years ago from the family island retreat. This amounts to the classical “locked room” scenario: How did someone get onto the island without being seen, kill the girl, remove all trace of the body and get out again. So far, so Agatha Christie/Colin Dexter/insert generic crime author.
What sets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo apart is the 2nd lead – assigned initially to investigate Mikael’s suitability to investigate the case, and later drawn into the actual case itself. Where as Mikael is a generic slovenly, middle-aged journalist, Lisbeth Salander is a wiry, punk computer hacker with anti-social tendencies and a history of abuse and violence. Oh, and Bi-Sexual. Mustn’t forget that. Fair to say, while perhaps attempting to tick every unconventional box available, Larsson has certainly created an original character. So we have a crime thriller, buddy movie – He’s a reporter, She’s a punk, together they fight crime? Basically yes. After some initial distrust, both work together to investigate the central mystery which, naturally, results in uncovering some family skeletons and a car chase.
It is this slightly bizarre mix of the mundane tropes and the pure shock tactic that runs throughout the film. The opening sequences cover Mikael’s slow introduction to the case, inter-cut with Lisbeth getting attacked and abused by both local gangs and her assigned guardian. The guardian’s 2nd attack and Lisbeth’s revenge are particularly disturbing and harrowing sequences of violence, which wouldn’t look out of place in the worst examples of torture-porn. Like such films, they appear to exist only to shock – following the revenge sequence, the guardian character disappears from the film completely and the events have no connection whatsoever in the core case. I’m told that this encounter is critical to later events in trilogy and if so, perhaps with hindsight they may have some merit. But in its standalone form, they simply exist to sicken. I can not imagine the publicity if a Tarantino film contained such unjustifiable sequences!
Somehow, against all odds, Noomi Rapace (the actress charged with bringing the caricature of Lisbeth to life) is fantastic. Always on edge, coiled ready to spring into violence, she steals the film away. A lesser actress would be full of ticks, trying to sell every moment, but Rapace is able to keep still and let her world-weary eyes do the talking. Her performances makes the earlier violent scenes even more pointless (if that’s possible) – she clearly has the skill to suggest far worse horrors with a simple phrase and a look than anything the extended abuse sequences can muster. Michael Nyqvist is given little to do as Mikael Blomkvist, but plays a suitably bland canvas to his more interesting fellow detective. An assortment of respectable actors fill out the extended Vanger family, helped primarily by the fact that most or all will probably be unknown to English speaking audiences, but none managed to stand out, given the generic “red herring” type roles required of them.
The director Niels Arden Oplev paints a beautiful bleak picture of the world of the Vangers and clearly has an eye for a stunning landscape. Sadly neither he nor the two credited screen writers seem to understand the pace requirements of film, resulting in a slow ambling middle section as discoveries are made and secrets revealed. The film has that inescapable feeling of a “book being filmed” rather than adapted – no plot step, no matter how minor, is missed. Perfect for a leisurely read over several weeks, flabby and slow for what should be a 100 minute movie (run time is listed at 152 mins).
The US remake is currently planned with David Fincher as director. He of Se7en fame seems well suited to such bleak material. At the time of writing, Daniel Craig is rumoured close to wining the role of Mikael Blomkvist. The actor who brought life into Bond will surely find something to enliven this role, but it will be a forlorn task unless serious work is done to keep the core narrative central and quicken the pace – something, despite their many weakness, US remakes can be strong at. Could “The Girl with the Yankee Tattoo” finally be the first US remake to surpass it foreign language parent? It doesn’t have far to reach, but, as with the original’s only saving grace, it will all hinge on the casting of Lisbeth Salander.