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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

January 10, 2012 2 comments

For anyone who’s been living with his or her head in a bucket over the last three years, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) is the second attempt to film the Millennium trilogy written by Stieg Larsson, this time with a script by Steven Zaillian. The first book, Män som hatar kvinnor (literally meaning Men Who Hate Women), is now known as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in both written and visual formats. It’s been dominating the crime fiction market around the world since the translations first appeared in 2008.

Daniel Craig looking studious

 

For the purposes of this review, I need to state my prejudices up front. I entered the cinema with the opinion this remake was likely to be inferior to the original. Not surprisingly, I left convinced I had just sat through an unnecessary film. Although this version differs in some respects from the Swedish original, I’ve no sense these differences are improvements. The only advantage derived from this $90 million production, including its quite expensive cast, is that the figures on screen speak in English, thereby avoiding the need for the audience to be comfortable with subtitles. However, so loud was the music soundtrack that I sometimes could not clearly hear what was said, missing the subtitles to help me out. Yet, in the back of my mind, there lurks the suspicion that, if I had not seen the original, I might think this a good film. This is annoying but, since I cannot wind back time and unremember what I saw, I am forced into the inconvenient game of having to try to be fair when comparing the two.

 

The first and most obvious impression you gain as this film starts is you have begun watching one of those smooth Hollywood features. The credits are particularly elegant and, although I have reached rarified levels of old age, there was a not unenjoyable electronic music soundtrack, both pop and more abstract. The direction from David Fincher proves slick and the cinematography from Jeff Cronenweth cleverly manages to desaturate the colours without going over the top in the winter and key indoor scenes. So, with all the production values, this has the look-and-feel of a major studio offering. In itself, this is not a bad thing. It merely signals the director and all those involved are aware of their target audience and their prejudices.

Rooney Mara playing the cuddly version of Lisbeth

 

So, ignoring details, what has changed? Putting it bluntly, this is a sanitised film. Although we have the same basic elements of fellatio, anal rape, the revenge tattooing, both hetero- and homosexual bed scenes, and incest, there’s a distinct effort made to tone it down. This may surprise those of you who have not seen the original, but that clearly earned its R certificate. This is rather more discreet, setting up the scenes or topics, and then hinting at rather than showing the detail. The Nazi element is distinctly underplayed. Indeed, there’s only one passing reference to the anti-Semitism as one of the two motives for the earlier killings. As to those killings, the details are also rather glossed over. It’s quick quotes from the Bible, a few crime scene photographs, Lisbeth talking to local police officers, and a shot of the outside of a barn. Curiously, Sweden has been through an aggressive spring clean. In physical terms, it’s better lit, there’s less rubbish lying around and, consequently, city scenes are much less threatening. We also lack the pervasive air of sexism that represents a danger to unconventional women when they appear in public (as you will understand from the title of the novel, this film version is supposed to be about men’s behaviour towards women). I’m left with the conclusion the American market cannot stomach anything too graphic, is moderately puritanical about sex, prefers not to confront sexism, and is completely allergic to any explicit racism.

Christopher Plummer dictating notes on acting to Daniel Craig

 

On the acting front, Daniel Craig turns in a pleasingly restrained performance as Mikael Blomkvist. He proves to be moderately convincing as an investigator and analyst with the script allowing him to be moderately computer-literate so he can manipulate the photographic evidence to get the desired results. No doubt his female fans will be pleased with the amount of time he spends without too many clothes interfering with the view. On balance, this is impressive. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Rooney Mara. This is not the same dangerous Lisbeth Salander, both physically and intellectually, we see with Noomi Rapace. If anything, Rooney Mara comes over as passive-aggressive, preferring to avoid eye contact, and avoiding excess in dress. Indeed, she’s actively caring for her previous judicial custodian and is the one looking to make the running in a relationship with Mikael Blomkvist. She’s definitely a more vulnerable human being than the person who dominates the screen in the original. As a point of contrast, there’s little in our first view of Rooney Mara when she meets with Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to suggest she can be a chameleon, able to adopt a different persona and pass herself off as a high-flying executive in the offices of international banks and financial institutions. Yet there’s no doubt Noomi Rapace has more than enough self-confidence to steal a sizeable chunk of Wennerström’s illicitly acquired wealth. Her screen version of Lisbeth mocks the inadequate men around her and, when words are insufficient, she’s prepared to fight. In the original film, she kills the murderer. The remake resurrects a slightly different version of the novel’s ending where the murderer dies in a car “accident”. That’s consistent with the desire to protect this version of Lisbeth and not allow her to be a killer (although this would be manslaughter if the police could find evidence of her chasing the car). Stellan Skarsgård is pleasing as Martin Vanger with the ever-reliable Christopher Plummer as the patriarch who sets the ball rolling.

Stellan Skarsgard enjoying desaturated colours

 

The production focusses on Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara with most of the other roles relegated to extended walk-ons. Frankly, I found this quite long to sit through at 158 minutes. In this I note the original is only a few minutes shorter, but it packs more punch and has less interest in the aftermath of the investigation. Although Daniel Craig comes out of this well, Rooney Mara is very disappointing. So The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) is a stylish if somewhat flashy Hollywood film with music that’s sometimes too loud and a somewhat eviscerated version of the plot. In toning the story down for the domestic American box office, I feel the best parts of the original have been thrown away. But it seems to be earning back the money invested, so enough people are paying to see it and word-of-mouth is not killing attendance. To that extent, the production team must be congratulated. They have pitched a film at their market. Those of us who fail to share this myopic culture can only shake our heads in sadness. Americans deny themselves so much by refusing to see foreign-language films, particularly when they deal with sexual and racial themes. In some respects, I think this isolationism dangerous because there’s little understanding of the world outside their borders. Unless the USA tones down its militarism, this will only lead to more misunderstandings and increasing alienation.

 

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)

October 26, 2010 12 comments

In the written form of story-telling, you can shift the point of point to give a different perspective on the emerging narrative. This is more difficult in the cinema. That’s what makes The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest slightly different to the preceding two in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but no less engrossing.

Some thirty years ago, a friend of mine did quite a lot of business in Sweden and I always remember him saying, “If you want anything done, you have to form a committee.” I don’t know whether the same decision-making philosophy applies today, but he described Swedish society as being co-operative in spirit with more people admitted to stakeholder roles.

The best way to think about this trilogy is to see it as two separate narrative arcs. The “girl” starts off defending her mother from an abusive father, ends up punished in a mental hospital, and then released on licence into a corrupt Guardianship system. The journalist has had an eventful life investigating the rich and famous, is the joint founder of a high-profile and respected journal, and continues his pursuit of justice.

This makes the trilogy all about pace and scale. In the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the journalist sets off in classical detective story format. From his point of view, we see the investigation develop. This is small-scale and limited by what he can find. Initially, his progress is slow until the girl makes it a team effort. Then the pace picks up as they begin to see beyond the immediate and glimpse the bigger picture. By the end of the film, we have some real insight into the journalist and observe the girl without being given enough information to understand her. This is reflected in the descriptive title to the film. This is “as she is”.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is a title in the past tense. We are immediately referred back to the original defensive act as the context for the current action. This switches the frame of the film from a genre-specific detective format to that of a psychological thriller where we begin to see why the girl has been victimised. This means we step back from the more intimate story between the journalist and the girl, and now see them as players in a bigger game.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is also a title in the past tense and a reference back to the same attack on her father, now given fresh impetus from her new attempt to kill him. The frame for the narrative is completely expanded to include the state. If there’s one basic truth about governments, it’s that one journalist cannot investigate and prosecute high-ranking civil servants or politicians. Only a state has the authority to look at itself and decide whether anything should be done. Although there’s a wonderful mythology surrounding Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s contribution to the downfall of President Nixon, there was a continuing investigation, initially FBI-based, looking for a link between the Watergate break-in and the re-election campaign committee. Our fictional journalist is no better than the real-world equivalents and can do nothing more than hitch his wagon to the Swedish Prime Minister’s task force. He stops being the “hero” in the Hollywood sense of the word, and becomes a cog in the machine. He joins the committee to get things done.

The girl has a different role to play. In a patriarchal society, there are penalties for attacking your father. It matters not whether this is in defence of your mother or yourself, you will be put on trial. Thus, the girl must be seen as the victim both personally, because she has been seriously injured, and legally, because the courts are to be used to lock her away again in “the” mental hospital. That’s why it’s such a pleasing touch when she asserts her individuality by dressing in high style for her court appearances. She will not be intimidated.

As a drama produced by Yellow Bird, this is a flat, ensemble piece with everyone pitching in to get a successful resolution. The other journalists at the Millennium find key information, the journalist’s sister is the girl’s lawyer. Even Plague gets a featuring moment or two in finally hacking the corrupt psychiatrist’s laptop. There are new players on the side of “right” and, of course, it must all be resolved with the girl released from custody.

The moment at the end between the journalist and the girl is touching and hits exactly the right note. In this concluding film, Noomi Rapace is a largely silent presence. It’s a nicely judged performance as she works her way back to health and then endures the trial. Michael Nyqvist continues as the dogged investigator although, as in the first film, he is forced to fight for his life. Yet again, he is saved by a woman. This is as it should be in a film about patriarchalism. A few words must be said about Anders Ahlbom as the venal and perverted psychiatrist and Lena Endre as the brave co-founder of Millennium and the journalist’s lover. In an ensemble film where everyone must work for the good of the team, they produced particularly clever performances. Ahlbom is the epitome of cunning, never overconfident and sufficiently aware to understand when it’s better to say nothing. Endre rises magnificently to the thankless role. She must be intimidated as the co-founder of Millennium and jealous of the girl who seems to be seducing her man away. It could have been the worst kind of hysteria, but it was muted and sensitive.

I have two reservations about the end-product. The first is that, with everyone spying on everyone else, it’s difficult at times to know which side we are seeing. The second is more serious. The Niedermann thread is completely wasted. He should have been caught at the end of the second film. In this episode, his only function is to interrupt the development of the major plot themes, surviving to allow the girl an opportunity to show she is back on form. In reality, all the post-trial excitement does is delay the meeting we want to see with the journalist. A more subtle way to demonstrate her recovery should have been found.

This is a must-see for anyone who enjoyed the first two. It’s genuinely engrossing and produces a highly satisfying resolution to the girl’s narrative arc with a senior agent of the Swedish government giving evidence for her in the trial. There’s no better way for a state to acknowledge its past mistakes. But, if you have not seen the first two, do not go and see this. You will be thoroughly confused.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)

September 21, 2010 1 comment

In a sense, a film needs a plot. There has to be something coherent to put on the screen. It should be entertaining. For those who prefer intelligence, it should offer food for thought. But without characters we can understand, respect and care about, there’s no point to the plot. There are only images on the screen with us indifferent as to the fate of those depicted in them.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was the man’s film. He was the reporter threatened with jail and so available to undertake the investigation. She was playing catch-up. In the end, it was a partnership of equals. Sex was on her terms. They remained friends when she walked away. He was humble enough to be able to accept the fact that she saved his life. She could be with a man and not think of him as an enemy.

The sequel is a film about a woman. There’s a man who believes he is her friend, but he is now the one playing catch-up. The title is interesting and revealing. It names her as The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden. As a twelve-year old, she defended her mother by setting fire to her abusive father. She is all grown up now and the film starts with our heroine returning to Sweden after a year’s meaningless travel abroad, finding reasons to spend her ill-gotten gains. We see snapshots of her living out of suitcases. Later we see inside the apartment she buys in Sweden. It’s mostly empty. The refrigerator is bare. Eating is a functional thing you do to stay alive. She may have acquired wealth, but it has not changed her as a person. Literally and metaphorically, she lives hand-to-mouth. Material possessions are of little interest to her unless they serve a specific purpose. All she needs is a place to sleep, anonymous clothes to wear and the floor to store them on. This expensive flat has windows looking out into the world she must periodically enter. She feels safer inside looking out, but is supremely confident when out. Someone who knows her, thinks of her as invincible. Indeed, that’s how she thinks of herself. Except, of course, someone more invincible can overwhelm her. When this happens, she never gives up. She just carries on as if nothing untoward has happened.

Early on in the film, her employer from the first film complains that she treats those she knows as disposable. People are only there for her convenience, to be spoken to or helped as she feels appropriate. He wonders how someone can be so walled-off from the world. He says this as an outsider and without rancour, accepting her for who she is. There’s no need for him actually to ask how she relates to those whom she might call her friends. Apart from her first legal Guardian and a girl for sex, she has no friends.

Because she is who she is, she finds herself a target. As it’s explained to her, “It’s just business.” But through this involvement, she gets a second chance at revenge for what happened to her mother. In other films, we would no doubt lose sympathy for someone who decides to act out the impulse. Taking both films together, however, the cumulative horror in her life gives us understanding. The simple vulnerability and honesty of her defuses the issue. This is not sensationalised in Hollywood style with vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. This is an abused woman who fights to reclaim who she is as a person. Nevertheless, we should note that she immediately responds with graphic violence to her rape and, at the end of the first film, she takes vicarious revenge, destroying the wealthy tycoon who was able to imprison her man for an alleged defamation. We can therefore see a kind of inspirational righteousness in her. She seeks justice, not only for herself, but also for those she has some feelings for. Towards the end of this film, she takes the unprecedented step of sending her man an e-mail acknowledging him as a friend. The first sign that a woman who has suffered so much abuse at the hands of men may be able to trust one of that breed again.

This is a film in which people who are hit, stay hit. It does not glorify violence. Instead it shows brutality for what it is and what it does to people. Take it as being a part of the film’s integrity. The story blends detection with a more thrillerish approach. This is detection as self-defence, aiming to identify the source of the threat and eliminate it before “it” eliminates the heroine. More importantly, it starts to give us a better view of the extent of the conspiracy that has victimised the girl-now-woman. Although there’s one obvious “bad guy”, he’s not working alone. Swedish society is implicated and it will take a few brave souls to root out the corruption and see justice done.

This film is stunningly good, in many ways rather better than the first. Although, when I think about it, the second draws its strength from the first. If you saw the second as a stand-alone, you would struggle to understand it. Once again, the cast proves sensational. Michael Nyqvist is playing the “hero” in a wonderfully understated way, while Noomi Rapace continues to star as the eponymous “girl”. In every way, she carries the film. Indeed, seeing the structure of this film and how the primary characters relate to each other, makes Hollywood’s decision to remake the Millennium Trilogy even more bizarre. When you cast a sex symbol like Daniel Craig into the leading male role, how can he fail to see, let alone touch, the girl until the last few frames? Although the hero does have sex with the editor of the magazine where he works, I doubt this opportunity to see Craig without his shirt will be enough to satisfy Hollywood and Craig’s fans. I fear there will be major surgery to distort the plot into a star-vehicle. Unfortunately, Stieg Larsson is no longer around to defend the novels he wrote — the trilogy being published posthumously. When so much money is at stake, the needs of bankers outweigh any artistic hopes that might lurk in the consciences of the author’s heirs who sold the rights.

Back in the Swedish film industry where character is everything, events are left nicely poised for the third. Fortunately, the trilogy is playing as a single season so I only have a few weeks to wait to see how it all works out.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)

August 18, 2010 4 comments

Neutrality is a most curious convention in International Law. When all about you are fighting, one country stands aloof and refuses to support any of the “sides”. The curiousness lies not so much in the wish to avoid fighting — the risk of casualties both in the armed forces and the civilian population would deter all rational governments from involvement — but in the willingness of the actual combatants to respect the assertion of neutrality and not allow the theatre of war to stray over the relevant borders. So Sweden managed to remain relatively uninvolved in WWII. There was significant trade, significant volumes of money moved through the banking system, some Swedes fought in the German army. Some even worked as guards in Treblinka. The degree of collaboration is one of those unexplored pieces of history. More modern Swedish governments prefer to remember heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian jews by issuing them with Swedish passports, carefully reconstructing history in the schools and media generally to divert attention from the inconvenient truth.

One of the more illuminating lines in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor is that everyone has secrets, even countries. Given that the plot surrounds a family whose wealth was undoubtedly enhanced through collaboration with the Nazis, we are immediately pitched into a classic murder mystery from the Golden Age with the political ideology of Aryanism to the fore. Only a limited number of people could have “done it” because, at the relevant time, all the key players were trapped on an island by a serious traffic accident. But there are two elements that lift this from a mundane Agatha Christie plot into a work for modern sensibilities. The first is that it plays with the nature of history and the power of the modern eye to interpret and reinterpret the signs from the past. In this, it’s clearly following in the tradition of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose with its deconstructionist and semiotic undertones. The ability to manipulate images and to excavate the past for even the most trivial of pieces of paper are the keys to all understanding. The second decision of note is to take an unflinching look at misogyny. I cannot remember a film in recent years that exposes all the prejudices and abuses that lie mostly hidden under the surface of most modern societies. Perhaps from a poor understanding of Scandinavia, I had always thought Sweden was a relatively civilised country. Sadly, if this film is in any way representative of reality, it seems just as venal and corrupt as the rest of the world when it comes to the treatment of women.

In this, the pivotal character is the eponymous girl, played with outstanding suppressed violence, by Noomi Rapace. It’s an intensely demanding role and, in the wrong hands, it would have completely changed the character of the film, probably condemning it to the direct-to-video route to oblivion. As it is, her performance is one of the most memorable I can recall in the last decade. She has been abused at every point during her life, yet she manages to retain integrity and a brutal kind of honesty. In the end, she gives as good as she gets. Playing her foil is Michael Nyqvist as a journalist paid to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of a girl some forty years ago. Nyqvist is passive and understated but, because of his honesty and empathy, he is able to bridge the gap with Rapace’s character. Apart they are interesting. Together they become an unstoppable force for truth. Unlike Sweden itself which played a game of neutrality during WWI, this film takes no prisoners when it comes to confronting the abuse of women in Swedish society.

Almost without exception, every character is beautifully played from the obsessed industrialist who pays the journalist to find the murderer, to Peter Andersson’s extraordinarily corrupt Guardian responsible managing the dragon girl’s money while she is out of mental hospital on licence, to Björn Granath as the determined local police officer. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with the current stars of Swedish film and television, but the entire cast of “unknowns” emerge as fresh and talented. One further cast member must be mentioned. The scenery of the island and key locations are stunningly beautiful, if somewhat bleak, a factor that plays against the emerging horror of the investigation and surrounding events.

I am disturbed by stories that the film is to be reshot for American audiences. Apparently, Daniel Craig is lined up to play the journalist. Frankly, I think this is a supreme insult to the director and cast of the Swedish original produced by Yellow Bird. I cannot conceive of any sanitised script with a cast of stars coming remotely close to being as good. Having James Bond in the remake is ludicrous casting against type and can only be explained by Hollywood’s lack of faith in the quality of the story. You can just imagine the producers in a smoke-filled room, “We need a star to carry this movie — unknowns would condemn our remake to the arthouse circuit.” In truth, the only reasons for this offensive decision are the extreme parochialism of America that, for the most part, is hostile to any culture other than what it claims as its own. And the inability of the audience to read the subtitles. Let’s face it, the desperation of US distributors cannot be better illustrated than by the rerecording of the voice tracks for Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful animations. There has been no worse butchery in recent years than cutting out the sensitive vocal performances of the Japanese casts in favour of Hollywood stars. I shall be watching the other two Swedish films in this Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I will not be queuing to watch the Hollywood remakes.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

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