Adapted from the novel by the late Swedish author, Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a conventional thriller with a rather unconventional cast of characters and themes. Perhaps looking at the film’s title upon its original Swedish release may help shed some light on this: Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (literal translation ‘Men Who Hate Women’). A light-hearted look at the idiosyncrasies of Scandinavian society then…I think not.
Larsson’s own story is cinematic enough in itself. He was a renowned investigative journalist and political activist who died, some say, in suspicious circumstances, leaving a trilogy of unpublished manuscripts behind. His Millennium series, of which this is the first part, have posthumously gone on to become a global phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, Hollywood has already been sniffing around. But how does the Swedish language version fair up?
It opens on the, one suspects, autobiographical figure of Mikael Blomkvist, a maverick investigative journalist/political activist reeling in the aftermath of a libel suit that sees him looking at a three-month prison stretch. Blomkvist refuses to appeal, taking up the challenge of solving a 40-year-old missing person mystery instead. Running parallel to this is the story of Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous tattooed girl of the title, a bisexual, goth-punk computer hacker, whose life seems cursed by escalating spirals of abuse.
After a protracted first act, Blomkvist and Lisbeth finally meet, signalling the start of the film proper. At this point, not only does the textual aesthetic of the pallid cinematography become much richer in colour, as if the film itself is blooming into life, but the rapport between the characters gives the narrative a much needed new impetus.
Lisbeth soon links the disappearance of young Harriet Vanger to a series of grizzly murders and the Vangers, a reclusive clan of millionaire industrialists with its own chequered family history – feuding, Nazism…all the usual dysfunctional stuff.
Framed around the Agatha Christie-ian ‘closed-room’ scenario, the plot harks back to classic detective fiction and the mercurial-genius-with-sidekick character archetypes, the twist being the gender role reversal. Lisbeth is the anarchic prodigy with a photographic memory, while Mikael is little more than an old hack riding in the slipstream of her kinetic momentum.
The dynamism between the two leads is the film’s strongest suit. Noomi Rapace captures Lisbeth’s amorality and innate rebelliousness without resorting to wild-eyed seething and Michael Nyqvist seems happy to play his Blomkvist as an understated, if anodyne, passenger. The interplay between never seems too forced, with their relational development following a natural progression of plot beats.
However, the film’s overall pacing is ponderous at best, for what is, in effect, a generic psychological thriller. Danish director Niels Arden Oplev spices things up with flashes of violence and intensity, but two-and-a-half hours is a long time to arrive at the inevitable final destination (and, no, I hadn’t read the book).
The long opening segment dealing with Blomkvist could have been covered far more economically, with the focus shifted onto Lisbeth, whose perpetual motion livens up the talk-heavy atmosphere. Her opening arch is where the film is at its most interesting and shocking.
Perhaps too much reverence was paid to the source novel, or this was a project originally slated as a TV drama. The whole thing definitely feels like a miniseries cut down in size for a cinematic release. Either way, the after effects of all this time lavished on sub plots and back story is that, after the main narrative concludes and the film reaches its thematic climax, there are still several plot threads in need of resolution.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is not a bad film (and a highly acclaimed one in many quarters). It has a strong central story, a great character in Lisbeth, is well acted and looks fantastic. But it’s also way too long and has some serious plot holes that don’t bear up to closer inspection. For example, why would anyone write the key to a series of murders in code? That’s just stupid. But such are the genre conventions of the mystery thriller.
The film has been a monster success in Europe, but I think that’s more off the back of Stieg Larsson’s hype. This is not the new Silence Of The Lambs, though Lisbeth could well go on to become an iconic character.
A lot of people will describe The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as an ‘intelligent, thought provoking thriller’. But for me it’s not. It’s an old-fashioned potboiler with a modernist twist and is quite schlocky in places, but engaging enough to pull through.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is in cinemas from March 12th.