Back in March of this year, I was sent to cover an adaptation of the first part of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I remember it well because Mark Kermode sat next to me.
Anyway, at the time, the books were starting to gather momentum, threatening to snowball into the biggest publishing phenomenon since the world went gaga for themoony vampires of Twilight. Six months later and that possibility has become a reality. I must see about three or four people daily, reading the books on crowded buses and tubes around London.
The cinematic version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo left me a bit cold. It was undoubtedly a classy piece of work, with a great central character in Lisbeth Salander and nice flip on the classic ‘genius/sociopathic detective with phlegmatic sidekick’ archetypes. However, it was still a pretty generic thriller with some ropey plot holes and ponderous pacing. Definitely not, for me, the five star masterpiece lavished with critical acclaim from all and sundry. In fact, I believe David Fincher will probably better tell the story with the aid of some Hollywood gloss, but I digress.
The Girl Who Played With Fire picks up the story a year after the events of Dragon Tattoo. Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist reprise their roles as Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, respectively. While Swedish director Daniel Alfredson takes over from Niels Arden Oplev.
Salander has been travelling the world on a fraudulent fortune, but for some (not very well explained) reason decides that now is the time to return to Stockholm from the Caribbean. Blmokvist, meanwhile, is still ruffling feathers with his hard-hitting magazine, Millennium. When a young journalist, Dag, approaches the mag with an expose on human trafficking and prostitution in Sweden, Blomkvist quickly agrees to publish.
This links back to one of the most intriguing and disturbing aspects of Dragon Tattoo, Salander’s unexplored back story alluding to a lifetime of abusive social care and the sadistic perversions of her current guardian, Bjurman. Indeed, one of Lisbeth’s first visits is to Bjurman, who wakes up to a gun in his face and threats from Lisbeth reminding him she has not forgotten about him.
When both Dag, his girlfriend and Bjurman are all executed in quick succession – with Lisbeth’s fingerprints on the gun – Salander soon becomes the prime suspect in a triple murder case. Blomkvist, still infatuated by her anarchic genius, sets out to prove that she isn’t the murderer and uncover the truth about the prostitution ring, twin stories that soon become intertwined.
This a bleak film, framed against the perma-grey of urban sprawl that seems to add to the claustrophobic atmosphere. While Arden Oplev used the icy whiteout of the Scandinavian wilderness to great affect in Dragon Tattoo, here the majority of the action is set in Stockholm. Also, this is much more of a thriller than a whodunnit, mirroring the tenacious fact finding of investigative journalism more than Sherlock Holmes-esque supersluthing. These elements combine to create a less escapist atmosphere than before.
Once again, Noomi Rapace is the standout as Salander. The recently cast Rooney Mara has a serious job on her hands trying to top Rapace’s performance in the English language remakes.
The Girl Who Played With Fire‘s best scene, by a country mile, sees Salander suspend one of the human trafficker’s henchmen from the ceiling of his home and threaten to zap him with a taser until he hangs himself through his own convulsions, her face, inexplicably, covered up with Joker-esque grease paint. She is androgynous and sexually predatory, fiercely independent but scared and delicate, a complex and nuanced character that represents ‘role of a lifetime’ territory for any actor.
However, the film can’t escape its staid plot, which is, unfortunately, not very interesting. The gripping prostitution thread becomes little more than a sub strand of a greater conspiracy, and one that feels overly contrived by the time the big reveals come into play. And Salander’s refusal to work with Blomkvist, the one man with any clout fighting in her corner, is never justified by anything more than a ‘Well, that’s just Lisbeth’ cover-up.
The novels now have such a grip over popular culture that this film is bound to be greeted by a chorus of critical praise on release. But it is nowhere near the league of Dragon Tattoo, which was, itself, a tad over-rated in my opinion.
The Girl Who Played With Fire is equally well written, acted and shot, technically admirable in every respect. But it is also rather soulless. Mark Kermode wasn’t at the screening this time either.