Monday, 14 June 2010

Never upset a Swedish hacker

Based on the first book in Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is, for the most part, a fairly straightforward crime mystery/thriller.

The story goes like this. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a middle-aged, falsely disgraced journalist, gets a job working for Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the elderly head of a rich and powerful family run business cartel. Henrik wants Mikael to try and solve the forty-year-old disappearance and presumed murder of his grand niece, Harriet, who he doted on. A large part of this investigation takes place in a remote snowbound village located on an island just off the coast, linked to the mainland by a single bridge. The village is mostly made up of members of the cartel’s ageing Vanger family, all of whom are potential suspects in the forty-year-old mystery of Harriet’s disappearance. But the case is old and cold with the police having long given up on it. There seems not much hope of any new clues. And at first, just like everyone else, Blomkvist makes no headway. But then he gets some unexpected help from an unlikely source – an antisocial, deeply troubled, though incredibly smart young woman called Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Lisbeth is a gifted hacker working for a security firm where she’s been charged with keeping electronic tabs on Mikael. But the more she watches him, the more she becomes fascinated with his investigation in to the Vangers. And she begins to see things in the investigation that he is missing. Unable to resist, Lisbeth emails Mikael, giving him some of the answers he's missed. Pretty soon the mismatched pair join forces for real and together try to solve the mystery of Harriet's disappearance.

So far so more or less textbook whodunit mystery thriller. However where THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO scores points above and beyond other similar genre fare is in its themes and the distinctly dark, brutal and disturbing undercurrent always lurking beneath the surface.

The actual Swedish title of the film and its source book is MEN WHO HATE WOMEN. A very apt title. Brutal misogyny is at the heart of this film. Primarily it is about men who abuse and mistreat women for various fucked up reasons. It also mixes in other forms of hatred and bigotry including Swedish Nazism complete with all its ghastly anti-Semitic poison. Nurture vs. nature is another major theme of the story. Just how responsible is a criminal for his or her crimes and how much is blamed on upbringing or society? And then their is the corruption and the greed of big business and giant corporations, the moral black hole that seems to exist beneath our so-called western liberal democracies. To me this story seems as much a dark indictment on Swedish society as it is an intriguing mystery thriller. Now, I know next to nothing about Swedish society, so I have no idea how true any of this is of Sweden. But from what we see on the news and read in the papers, such ghastly things do go on almost everywhere. And we are being financially, socially and morally bankrupted by greedy power seeking institutions. Yes, city bankers, I’m looking at you.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO also scores highly with its characters – chiefly the fascinating Lisbeth, a messed up, abused and deeply troubled young woman with a razor sharp mind and a vicious ruthlessness that would mean you’d never, ever wanna mess with her. Lisbeth is a great character - sullen yet sexy, violent yet fragile, tragic yet determined. She is always utterly compelling in how she deals with all the bad shit life throws at her. Playing Lisbeth, actress Noomi Rapace is outstanding. She dominates the screen whenever she is on it, carrying with her so much introverted, barely restrained pain and anger. The scene where she gets her own back on a vile, abusive official is gross but also punch the air great. Go girl! Rumour has it that the obligatory Hollywood remake (albeit a David Fincher one…whew!) might have the UK's very own Carey Mulligan playing Lisbeth. Personally I’d like to see Noomi reprise the role. But I could easily see Carey doing a darn fine job too. As journalist Mikael Blomkvist, Michael Nyqvist is also very good. He is pretty much the heart of the film. He's a decent, hardworking, honourable guy who’s been dishonoured by powerful forces and is looking for some kind of a way back, a way to prove to the world who he really is. Nyqvist gives his character a tired, worn down look and feel as well as a gentle, caring and perceptive nature. He is a rumpled everyman who just wants to do the right thing and make sure those who do wrong get punished appropriately.

The direction by Niels Arden Oplev is solid and effective without ever threatening to become particularly dynamic or stylish. But it does the job and tells the story while relying mostly on the characters and the plot to keep the audience interested. Elsewhere the cinematography is suitably crisp and stark and helps sell those icy cold Swedish locales. All the other tech credits are perfectly fine.

Although not as amazing as the hype suggests, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is certainly a good film. It's a nicely compelling mystery/thriller that's raised up a few notches by some decidedly dark and challenging themes and by a wonderful central performance from Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the new, cool, messed up, badass girl on the block. 4/5


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