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The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten

October 14, 2013 Leave a comment

The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten

The Fire Dance by Helene Tursten (Soho Press, 2014) translated by Laura A Wideburg, was first published in 2005 as Eldsdansen. It’s the seventh in the series featuring Detective Inspector Irene Huss. She’s a forty-something wife and mother who just happens to be a judo expert — a skill that comes into play with surprising regularity during the series albeit less directly in this novel. She’s what we might term an Everywoman. Although she has fighting skills, they don’t depend on physical strength. She doesn’t do the job as a detective because she’s tough, sees the job as glamourous, enjoys the power the job gives her over others, or feels she has something to prove as a woman in a man’s world. She’s a mom who’s saving Sweden when she can fit it in round her schedule. Fortunately her husband, an excellent chef, has done a deal with a restaurant that usually allows him to work part-time. This gives him the chance to do the bulk of the work offering support for their two daughters when it’s asked for. Her boss is Superintendent Sven Andersson, a man who loves opera, strong beer and schnapps, and struggles with the tensions between the male and female staff, and the local politics of nationality. Keeping us up to date with the story in visual terms, Yellow Bird has produced six Irene Huss films.

This novel starts off at the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2004 in which a particularly striking young woman walks into the Park Aveny Hotel Bar. An extended flashback then takes us to 1989/90 and, once we’ve absorbed the necessary information, we return to current time. The hook for the plot is Sophie Malmborg, a young girl who, fifteen years ago, may have been involved in a series of three fires which might have been arson. The third fire occurs at the house she and her immediate family occupied. Unfortunately, when it’s extinguished, the body of her stepfather is discovered. He had an alcohol problem and so could easily have started the fire himself. It should have been easy to clarify the sequence of events but Sophie, already prone to avoiding conversation, becomes effectively mute. Selective mutism in this situation seems to be a choice on her part. None of the police, including the then inexperienced Huss, can elicit any word or gesture from her as answers to their questions. As the years passed, the girl continued to surround herself in silence. This led to a diagnosis of schizoid personality disorder. Now she’s dead. She disappeared from the hotel, was not seen for three weeks and then her dead body was found in a burned shed on an industrial estate. Because it could be directly relevant to the motive for her death, the police force needs to establish exactly what she refused to discuss back in 1989.

Helene Tursten

Helene Tursten

This is not a simple police procedural in which a dedicated officer leads a team of investigators to a triumphant arrest at the end. Rather it’s a story about two families which briefly interact in a moment of crisis. On one side of the legal fence, we’re invited to observe the events in the Huss household. With two daughter both old enough to want their independence but lacking experience in the hardships of life, Irene struggles with the need to give them space. Even though they are probably both entering into unsuitable relationships, they will never learn unless they make mistakes and still have nonjudgmental parents to fall back on. What makes this more difficult than usual is that one of the relationships is with a person on the periphery of the Malmborg case. Indeed, Irene finds that daughter at a party in what may have been the house used to hold Sophie prisoner during the missing three weeks. As her workload increases with gangs in a turf war, Irene is under increasing pressure to solve the Malmborg case. Only then can she hope to find a better balance between work and home, something that’s necessary to reduce the stress levels on all concerned.

On the other side of the fence stand the complicated relationships in the Malmborg case. To understand how and why Sophie died, Irene has to piece together the history of the family. Her attempts to understand the dynamics of the case were frustrated fifteen years earlier. Looking back, she can see many ways in which she failed to ask the right questions of those involved. This time, the solution cannot lie in any words spoken by the key witness. Sophie is no longer available to ask. It must be excavated from Irene’s memory, and from inferences in all she sees and hears as the current investigation progresses. As the pages turn, the picture of Sophie grows ever more tragic. When her father died, she inherited his house, a cottage and a substantial sum of money. Her life has always been about the power of dance to express emotion. She’s become a choreographer, opening “her” house to a Brazilian dancer called Marcelo Alves, and her younger brother who also dances and studies photography. The house itself has changed very little since her father’s death. He was also reclusive. As a composer of national importance, his piano and suite of rooms remain as a kind of shrine. The current state of the house is a little like Miss Havisham’s approach to household management. Wealth and material possessions meant little to Sophie.

The answers in the deaths of Sophie Malmborg and her stepfather revolve around guilt and pain buried in the past. I did not use the word “tragedy” lightly. Helene Tursten shows us what terrible damage we can do to ourselves and to each other once the fuse is lit and the flame travels towards the accelerants. Only if the family is strong can people pull through such threats with minimal damage. Even though The Fire Dance may not be the most original plot, the way it’s written produces a remarkably powerful story. You should read it!

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)

October 13, 2012 2 comments

Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010) is the fourth adaptation to be shown but it was the first novel written by Henning Mankell in the Wallander series. It’s called Mördare utan ansikte in the Swedish. As adaptations go, it requires considerable surgery to make it fit into the series produced by Yellow Bird since we’ve already killed off one of the detectives who features in the novel, our hero’s daughter won’t speak to him, and his father’s illness is nowhere near dementia.

As a result, this episode is what my grandmother would have called a dog’s breakfast in that it takes a number of disparate elements and mixes them together in a somewhat haphazard fashion. We spend the entire episode existentially trapped inside this manic depressive’s head with everything filtered through his warped view of the world. We start off with Linda Wallander (Jeany Spark) and her new Syrian boyfriend, Jamal (Arsher Ali) having a bite to eat and a little alcohol with Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh). This is Daddy’s second meeting with the suitor and, because Daddy has the social skills of a brick, the meeting is not exactly the success the daughter would have liked. Indeed, both daughter and Daddy accuse him of being a closet racist — to avoid ambiguity here, the “him” in this sentence is Daddy accusing himself of racism. Indeed, the rest of the episode then takes the notion of racism and beats it over the head with a blunt instrument until it’s presumed dead. For the record, in the novels, Wallander is a liberal on most political issues including immigration and isn’t a racist.

Kenneth Branagh as the wheel turns

We start off with the brutal torture and murder of an old couple in a run-down farm house. The wife is clinging on to life as Wallander asks her, “Who did this to you?” Our old thing does her best. Her lips and teeth move in a way that suggests the word will begin with an “f” but the camera cuts as the breath comes out of her mouth and before he can say, “What? Speak more clearly, please.” she’s been and gone and died on him. He then spends the rest of the episode agonising over whether she uttered the word, “Foreigners”. In the aftermath of his daughter (and himself) accusing him of being a racist, he doesn’t want to believe he’s misinterpreting what the dying lady said. It could have been “Farmer” or “Philip II of Spain” even though he’s been dead a few centuries. As an aside, a white horse kept on the farm has broken loose. Unfortunately what should have been kept confidential is leaked to the press by Peters (Tom McCall), a naive young police officer. Needless to say, right-wing extremists use this as an excuse to start harassing and killing immigrant workers. As a metaphor for the news escaping, the white horse keeps appearing on the horizon as Wallander makes repeated visits to the farm to try to work out who could have killed the couple. Or perhaps it’s a metaphor for Wallander who feels trapped and inadequate and wants to range free across the farmlands of picturesque Sweden without responsibilities.

Richard McCabe makes a breakthrough and talks with Wallander

And adding to his problems, Gertrude Wallander (Polly Hemingway) telephones to report Povel Wallander (David Warner) has been found wandering around the countryside in his pyjamas. Appropriately, immigrant farm workers took pity on him and took him to the hospital where Jamal is on hand to translate (I forgot to mention that Jamal is a doctor). As we might expect, Wallander is full of thanks and eternally grateful, making these Good Samaritans feel they have done the right thing. Well, that’s what he might like to think his few grunts communicated. Later he and loyal sidekick, Anne-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart), go to his parent’s home where his father is burning the easel and the furniture from his studio. Curiously, it’s Nyberg (Richard McCabe) who breaks through the social barrier and actually sits down with Wallander to eat a pizza. It’s just a shame neither of them has any money to pay for it. Later, they also talk about the possibility he is a racist (that’s Wallander still agonising) and still not doing anything about his father who is not, of course, a foreigner.

Jeany Spark and Arsher Ali making a political point

Anyway, while visiting a bank to draw out money to pay for the pizza, Wallander has an eureka moment and realises it was Philip of Spain who did it (or perhaps it was foreigners — I was a bit past caring at this point). He also has the good sense to shoot dead a right-wing extremist (in self-defence) and physically to attack the young constable for betraying everything he (Wallander) stands for (or at least some of the things he stands for since he often does nothing, suggesting he doesn’t really care enough to do anything except solve crimes). Even his father gets fed up and books himself into a secure mental hospital so he doesn’t have to see his useless son any more. I know how he feels (“he” being the father this time).

And the white horse gets so depressed on the night the crimes are solved, he throws himself in front of a van and is killed. I know how he feels (that’s the horse, of course). I’m not denying the solution to the murder of the couple is quite clever. It’s one of these “in plain sight” crimes except it takes a Wallander to see where the trees are standing tallest in the wood. The killing of immigrants is just a bolt-on element to make a few political points about immigration and generally torture our hero. So, it all ends unhappily with Wallander handing in his badge and gun, and walking out of the police station (presumably as he’s seen it done many times in US television and film stories). Frankly, I thought the right-wing fanatic deserved to die but, in Sweden, the prosecutors are notoriously tough. As a final thought, since this was the first novel, the rookie Magnus Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston) never does anything other than lurk in the background. Such are the trials and tribulations of stars before they get their big breaks (as Norse anti-hero, Loki, of course). So, to sum up, the television adaptation of Faceless Killers is poor.

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: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)

October 6, 2012 2 comments

Wallander: One Step Behind (2008), produced by Yellow Bird, is the third episode I’ve seen. In the novel series by Henning Mankell, it’s called Steget efter and is the seventh. It now goes without saying that Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) is falling to pieces emotionally and physically. This seems to define the man. The television version gives the emotional reason as his wife, Mona, who now has a confirmed relationship with another. In the novel, Wallander is deeply upset because his father has died which, frankly, is a lot more convincing given the man’s devastated state. He never goes home, changes his clothes, or acts as a functional human being. Indeed, he carries the art of not talking to people to previously unexplored heights. He can sit with a potential witness for interminable periods of time and not ask a meaningful question. It’s as if he’s somehow walled himself off from the world and has literally lost the basic art of conversation. For example, when he’s on a trawler going out to an island with a potentially valuable witness, they nod at each other at either end of the journey and are shown not talking. For a man in a police procedural, this is quite extraordinary. It seems he’s converted to telepathy without telling anyone around him. He goes through this investigation as if he’s about to pass out at any minute. When he does collapse, appropriately enough in a hospital, he’s diagnosed as having developed Type II diabetes. His eating habits are catching up with him. This leads us to a general set of conclusions. He has been a crap dad to his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark). He was a crap husband to Mona. And he’s a crap human being because he fails to establish and fit into any kind of meaningful relationships with those around him. From this you will understand he wallows in self-pity. Driven by an increasingly obsessive desperation, he seems to embody a man determined to solve the crimes given to him even it it kills him.

Kenneth Branagh feeling on top of the world as Kurt Wallander

Anyway, in a prologue set on Midsummer’s Eve, we’re shown the murder of three teenagers. One of the mothers reports them missing, but three postcards turn up which appears to contradict her. The somewhat perfunctory investigation is being run by Svedberg (Tom Beard). He’s the quiet, retiring detective everyone works with but no-one knows. It’s as if he has no existence other than as a calm and efficient officer in the field. Naturally, Wallander has one of his nonconversations with the man and then, before we get too far into the story, someone shoots the officer in the head. This triggers a full investigation as a guilt-ridden Wallander tries to figure out who his colleague was and why anyone would want to kill him. It fairly quickly becomes apparent that Svedberg had been conducting an unusually thorough investigation for a missing person’s report. This suggests some information is missing from the files. When three more people are killed, I immediately knew who was responsible. I’ve read too many mysteries to miss this old idea. Of course it takes Wallander an age and even then, there’s a twist to throw him off the scent.

The ending is a travesty. I’m unable to understand how or why we must be subjected to idiocy of this level — although I concede the written version does have merit, this adaptation is horrendously clichéd. Through police work made far more difficult than it should have been because Wallander has been walking around like one of the living dead, they have identified the killer. I don’t think they sent the man a telegram, warning of their approach. As such plots require, they break in, guns being waved meaningfully as they’ve seen in American police shows on television. They then begin a search and Martinson (Tom Hiddleston) works through a veritable mountain of papers and, in no more than two shakes of a lamb’s tail, he’s holding a postcard that the killer has intercepted. It says Linda will be coming home that very day. Wallander lets out one of his grunts and sets off running like he wants a heart attack before he can go ten yards. Sweating like a pig, he staggers into his own home (fortunately not a great distance away as the man runs) and finds the psychopath waiting with a gun to Linda’s head. How did this psychopath know Wallander was coming? Has he tuned into the same broadband telepathy that Wallander has been using? I despair.

Tom Hiddleston recovering from dumpster diving

As to why the psychopath doesn’t kill Wallander when he has the chance. . . Well, to my mind, it’s just silly. Psychopaths kill people and, frankly, it would put us all out of our misery if he’d just pulled the trigger. That’s what psychopaths are supposed to do. There’s no rationality, no inhibitions and, in this case, every reason for him to want Wallander dead (if only to assert the sense that he rather than Wallander was the most important person around). As to why Wallander doesn’t just shoot the psychopath. . . Well, I think he was just past caring who lived or died by that point.

So although Wallander: One Step Behind (2008) is not quite as bad as last week’s episode, I’m rapidly losing interest in this excessively morose Swede. As television, it’s just one cliché after another framed in a story about a detective close to a complete breakdown. Although there are many fictional detectives given different forms of disability, this is the first time I can recall anyone so depressed all the time. I suppose Ian Rankin’s Rebus comes closest as an alcoholic depressive with Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks close behind. The more I see and read of these fictional detectives, the more I feel the need for something bright and cheerful. At least Sherlock Holmes could quietly retreat from the world when things were tough. Just a quick hit of cocaine and he was an bright as the energiser bunny for the rest of the episode. Our modern detectives all need to get out more and get a life.

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: Sidetracked (2009)

Wallander: Firewall (2009)

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

If you look into the world of statistics or the more philosophical assessment of cause and effect when studying coincidence, the first myth dispelled is any kind of causal connection between the two or more phenomena under study. That these events have occurred is mere synchronicity no matter what the observer may wish to believe to the contrary. When it comes to coincidence in fiction, it’s a lazy way of having different events occur at or about the same time and then have our hero find these are not random but actually interconnected. So, before you can say, Jumping Jiminy is an amusement park recreating the fun and excitement of Pinocchio and nothing to do with the game of cricket or Jesus, our detective has drawn venn diagrams showing how they all overlap and that explains whodunnit. Which, perforce, brings us to Wallander: Firewall (2009) (produced by Yellow Bird — originally the company was owned by Henning Mankell but it’s now a Danish company). The original title was Brandvägg and the eighth book in the series.

So Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) is looking even more hang-dog than usual, what with his marriage going down the tubes so, without telling him, his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) puts his details up on a dating website. In due course, there’s a hit from Ella Lindfeldt (Orla Brady) and, despite him standing her up on their first “date”, they seem to be striking some sparks off each other. In another part of town, a man is found dead in the city square not far away from the cash machine. There’s no obvious cause of death and his widow is convinced it can’t be a heart attack. The man was supposed to be as fit as a flea (metaphorically speaking) and likely to live for at least one-hundred years. Meanwhile, on the coast road, a young girl called Sonja Hokberg (Susannah Fielding) has murdered a taxi driver while her sister, Susana Hokberg (Rebecca Egan) looked on. During the interview, she frankly admits stabbing him multiple times, asserting that nothing matters any more.

Susannah Fielding and Rebecca Egan after the murder

OK so now things heat up. There’s a power failure at the police station and the electronic locks on the cells all fail in the “open” position so our murderess is able to just walk out and disappear. Like wow, man! When the lights go out, how many people head for the door of their cells to see if they can walk out? Well, only this one girl, it seems. Presumably, it could not have been preplanned because no-one communicates with her while in police custody. So it’s just a miraculous coincidence she’s able to escape. Then the folk down at the morgue discover the body of the healthy dead man has disappeared. Wallander applies a little thought and deduces that this theft was possible because there was no power and the electric locks failed in the open position. Anyway, when Wallander decides to break into this dead man’s flat, he chooses exactly the same time as the killer. The only reason Wallander does not have his head blown off is that, just as the killer is about to fire, he trips on a loose mat. How are we doing in the coincidence stakes? Anyway, in due course, all the lights go off again all over town —three’s a charm, so they say. When they investigate the find the body of Sonja Hokberg has been used to short-circuit the main fuses. She’s fried to a crisp. In due, the body of her boyfriend shows up. He’s been fed through an ice grinder so there’s not much of him left apart from a few smears on the crushed ice — what a waste since no cocktails can be made with that mixture. It’s always refreshing to find a killer with a genuinely gory approach to his work.

Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hiddleston and Luke Allen-Gale watching the computers

As if it could not get any worse, it then gets worse as it turns out that, three years earlier, Sonja had been raped by the taxi driver’s son but the sprog had not been prosecuted because loyal dad gave him an alibi. So it was just an unfortunate coincidence dad should turn up to collect Sonja from the beach when she was past caring what happened to her. Oh, yes, and that death near the cash machine — well the place of the death becomes a clue. And there’s a big coincidence when Robert Modin (Luke Allen-Gale) interrupts one of Wallander’s dates with Ella. He’s supposed to be under the control of Magnus Martinsso (Tom Hiddleston), but our young detective was less than diligent. There are other coincidence but it’s getting a little boring to draw them to your attention and they would be spoilers and we can’t have your enjoyment spoiled by giving away key events), now can we.

In short, Wallander: Firewall is terrible, being hopelessly contrived from start to finish. The real world never works like this and, no matter how well acted this may be, the result is just annoying.

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: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Lurking in the dense undergrowth of Swedish police procedurals are the outstanding books by Henning Mankell who’s best known for the novels featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander. This is the BBC television adaptation of the fifth book in the series called, Villospår (translated as Sidetracked). The novel was first filmed in 2001 with Wallander played by Rolf Lassgård. There has also been a Swedish television series of original stories featuring Krister Henriksson as Wallander. This somewhat inspiring but not uncomplicated history brings us to the British television series which is a combined effort between Swedish production company Yellow Bird (originally Mankell’s own company but now owned by a Danish company which produced the Millennium “The Girl Who” films — including the US version — and Headhunters) and British Left Bank Pictures starring Kenneth Branagh as Wallander. Uncharacteristically for a British adaptation which usually picks Scunthorpe or somewhere equally inspiring to stand in for Scandinavia, this was actually shot in Sweden, albeit largely with a British cast. This makes the adaptations much more authentic — it being the real Sweden that we see.

Kenneth Branagh and David Warner thinking about their relationship

Because we’re starting in the middle of things, Wallander has already separated from his wife, Mona, and so is even more depressed than usual. During the course of this episode, he makes progress in healing the relationship with his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark). What this adaptation fails to do is deal with the backstory. We start off in the rape seed fields with a girl committing suicide as Wallander looks on helplessly. Even under the best of circumstances this would be traumatic for a police officer. There he is, prepared to talk the hind legs off a donkey to persuade her to live yet, when he produces his police warrant card, she sets fire to herself. Later another girl involved in the case attempts suicide. In the novel series, Linda has also attempted suicide and this fact explains why Wallander is so distressed by the immediate events. He’s also forced to confront the first major signs of dementia in his father Povel (David Warner). He’s always been bad tempered, but this is prone to excess at home with his second wife, Gertrude (Polly Hemmingway) and leads him into a fight in his local supermarket. This slow disintegration of his father is a steady theme given his track record as an artist, obsessively painting highly similar landscapes for his entire career. Later, of course, Wallander becomes concerned about his own mental state.

Jeany Spark trying to keep the family together

From this, you’ll understand that the television adaptation is following the novel’s original structure by focussing on the characters who just happen to be family or whether directly or indirectly, caught up in the murder investigations. For this structure to succeed, the characters must be inherently interesting and the balance with a good puzzle must be properly struck. If the screenwriters get it wrong, we’ll grow bored by the characters because they don’t have enough room to develop, or we’ll find the crimes trivialised. In this case, the crimes are from the heavyweight division. The suicide proves to be one of the girls caught up in a white slaver prostitution ring. The problem for Wallander therefore, is to understand exactly who was involved in the systematic abuse of these women — not something the upstanding members of Swedish society are too keen on admitting even though they may be next on the killer’s list. We also have incest and child abuse involved. In many ways, this is throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the plot, but it actually does come together without seeming too excessive. In the end, it all comes down to a simple reality. The victims all deserved to die because their crimes were hideously excessive. In the midst of trying to keep himself in one piece, Wallander metaphorically leaves one of the surviving villains as the tethered goat to lure out the killer. It’s a terrible cliché but, in this instance, actually works quite well. In no small way, this is a credit to the actors involved who manage to carry off the potential silliness with great authority and calmness.

It’s interesting to see Tom Hiddleston in a relatively minor role as Magnus Martinsson, a youngish member of the police team while David Warner makes a stunningly good patriarch. Kenneth Branagh also seems in his element as Wallander making this adaptation of Sidetracked genuinely impressive.

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)

Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)

Based on the stand-alone novel by Jo Nesbo, Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011) takes us to a world where reputation is everything. Let’s face it, even if you go back to the school yard where everyone present is picked to play in teams, your reputation is either made or unmade by who chooses you. If you’re the first choice of the cool captain, you bask in glory. If you’re the last one, the one no-one wanted on their team, you wish you went to another school. Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a man of impeccable reputation. He’s the top headhunter, the man who picks the next generation of leaders for Norwegian business. With his endorsement, a man can be slotted in as CEO of Pathfinder, Norway’s top technology company. Unfortunately, interviews are not going well because the candidates are not playing hard to get. They show no class by throwing themselves at the job. If they had the right reputation, they would wait to be asked. Then along comes the perfect candidate. Meet Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). He’s been the CEO of a Dutch technology company but is only in Norway to tidy up some old family business. Naturally, he has an impeccable reputation and he’s not available, unless someone like Roger Brown was to ask him, of course.

Aksel Hennie doing his best to stay cool

 

There’s one other feature you need to understand. Roger Brown is slightly shorter than average and is in a marriage with a tall, beautiful woman (although he also has a mistress, Lotte (Julie R. Ølgaard). Diana Brown (Synnøve Macody Lund) is the ultimate trophy wife. When she walks into the room, everyone turns to watch her pass by. Roger is deeply insecure because of his height and, to keep himself in her good books, he spends money on her like water. Their home is worth millions and filled with every possible luxury. They both drive top-of-the-range cars, and she has every possible designer label item she might ever want to wear or carry. There’s only one small problem. She wants children and he doesn’t. This causes friction and is very much on Roger’s mind. To settle her down, again, he buys her some gold earrings. This would be another good investment if Roger actually earned enough to pay for all this sugar. Sadly, he doesn’t.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Synnøve Macody Lund discussing art

 

To cover the cost of keeping Diana sweet, he’s become a top art thief. Early on, he placed a reliable man, Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander), in the top local security company which has surveillance cameras and security systems in the homes of the rich and wealthy all over Norway. Using remote overrides, Ove can admit Roger to any address on the company’s books and wipe all recordings of his presence. How does Roger know what to steal? Well he does interview all the top business people in Norway. This gives him an excuse to ask about their interests and their movements. When he identifies a target and knows when the house will be empty, he has a copy made, and enters with maximum precautions to prevent any DNA evidence from being left. Most never notice the switch and the sales of this plundered loot finances the marriage. Now Diana tells Roger that Clas has an original Rubens.

Eivind Sander taking a moment in his shoot-out

 

It’s always strange to see how fragile life can be. One minute you can feel you’re in control of the situation and then, without warning, you face uncertainty. If Roger had not loved his wife, if the question of pregnancy had not been on his mind, he would never have taken out his mobile phone when he saw the children playing. That proved to be a very fateful call. Indeed, it precipitated a real crisis. The rest of the film poses and answers just two simple questions. What will people do to protect themselves? and Can you rely on people to act consistently with their reputations?

Julie R. Ølgaard asking for too much

 

Without question, Headhunters or Hodejegerne is the best thriller I’ve seen so far this year. Indeed, it may be the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It’s wonderfully precise in the way the plot dovetails together. There’s no detail too small, no incident too trivial to be forgotten. Everything comes back with renewed significance later on. Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg have done a wonderful job on the script and Morten Tyldum has produced a lean, mean film as director. At a technical level, it’s a masterpiece. But all this would be for nothing without Aksel Hennie’s performance. Yes, the rest of the cast are pitch perfect but, without the central performance, it would all be for nothing. Even though we should not be rooting for the thief to come through this sea of troubles, Aksel Hennie manages to make this somewhat unpleasant man sympathetic. In this case, morality be hanged! It would be great if he could survive. There’s just one problem. Everyone and their dog is out to kill him.

 

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)
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)

For review of novels by Jo Nesbo, see:
The Bat
Cockroaches
Police
The Son.

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)

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