Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor)

Stieg Larsson is one of the most popular and successful authors in the world, but he didn't live to see his creation become a literary phenomenon. Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, leaving behind the manuscripts for three novels, the first of which was entitled Män som hatar kvinnor. Perhaps sensing that Men Who Hate Women isn't a particularly bestseller-friendly title, Larsson's publishers changed the name of the first book to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and that's the title of the film now hitting the screen less than five years after Larsson's novel became a huge hit. Clearly, the production company behind this adaptation have been conscious of striking while the iron is still red-hot, and films adapted from Larsson's two equally successful sequels have already been completed. But this doesn't feel like a rushed job or a cash-in; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a solid thriller performed by a group of actors who all feel like a natural fit for their roles. Larsson would surely approve.

Given Larsson's career as a crusading left-wing journalist, it's hard not to detect a hint of wish-fulfilment in his casting of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's hero as...a crusading left-wing journalist. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a writer for Millennium magazine, who is facing jail time at the start of this story, having been found guilty of libel in the corruption allegations he aimed at a businessman. With a few barren months until his sentence starts, Mikael answers a curious invitation to meet with the wealthy and reclusive Henrik Vagner (Sven-Bertil Taube). Forty years ago Henrik's great-niece disappeared, and as she vanished while the whole family was in town for a board meeting, he suspects the villain to be a member of his large, vindictive clan. Having been promised a large payment whether he cracks the case or not, Mikael begins his investigations, but he doesn't get anywhere with this seemingly impossible task until he gets a little unsolicited help.

If Larsson created Blomkvist as a thinly veiled avatar for himself, then one has to wonder who on earth inspired the story's other lead character. Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) is a young computer hacker with a mysterious, but clearly troubled, past. Whatever trauma she has experienced in her youth has led to her being placed under state supervision, and in the care of a lecherous lawyer (Peter Andersson), but as soon as he oversteps the mark she shows us exactly what she is capable of. As played by the excellent Rapace, this punky, dark figure is an instantly compelling character, and the film starts to motor along appealingly as soon as she and Blomkvist have joined forces. The sexual relationship that abruptly develops between them might not convince (more wish-fulfilment, perhaps), but they make a thoroughly engaging pair of investigators nonetheless.

The biggest compliment one can pay to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is that the film is so competently made it's easy to forget just how ridiculous the plot is. Director Niels Arden Oplev doesn't possess a particularly distinguished or inventive visual style, but he's a safe pair of hands who is capable of driving the film from one incident to the next with the minimum of fuss. That plot is a problem, though – more specifically, the amount of plot the filmmakers have had to cram into the generous running time is the issue. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's narrative sometimes reminded me why I don't read many novels of this type. It's so plot-heavy that it eventually collapses into a conveyer belt of clues and revelations that come thick and fast, and the screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg does congeal at a certain point in the second half into a thick stew of plot points that is arduous to wade through. That's a flaw inherent in this kind of material, though, and if you're not bothered by such storytelling you probably won't find a great deal else to complain about here. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about as good an adaptation as it could have been, and it sets a respectable bar for the upcoming sequels, both of which will be in cinemas before the end of the year.