A publishing phenomenon to rival JK Rowling, it was inevitable that Swedish author Steig Larsson’s Millennium series of novels would get the cinematic treatment. What’s surprising though is that the Swedes got there before Hollyweird with the first in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is hired by elderly tycoon Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), patriarch of the wealthy Vanger dynasty, to investigate the 40-year old disappearance of his favourite niece from the family’s private island. Stalked and then aided by damaged young Goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), Blomkvist uncovers a dark, secret family history, opening up a Pandora’s Box of violence, sexual abuse and Nazism. But when their investigation stumbles across a series of seemingly unconnected murders, Blomkvist and Salander find themselves in a race against time to unmask a serial killer who may just be hunting them…
Selling more than 10 million copies worldwide since its posthumous publication in 2005, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a hefty potboiler, one of those novels read by people who don’t normally read novels. An instant cult hit, the book and its sequels became Sweden’s biggest cultural exports since ABBA and IKEA. Juggling multiple plotlines and themes, the novel is both an effective crime thriller and a scathing, scabrous meditation on the corruption and dangerous misogyny lurking at the heart of Swedish society, a fact reflected by its more Swedishly literal Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women.
While its translation to the screen is faithful to the tone and spirit of the book, the film feels crude and unwieldy in places. Originally a mini-series made for Swedish television and recut for the cinema, the film betrays its small screen roots and, at 2½ hours long, feels both half an hour too long and half an hour too short. Characters and plotlines feel undernourished and the first forty or so minutes drag. Particularly superfluous is Salander’s queasily upsetting relationship with her guardian/probation officer (Peter Andersson), a sexual predator. Though her rape and abuse at his hands are chilling and her almost biblical vengeance is undeniably a crowd-pleasing moment, the scenes, while darkly effective, feel episodic and serve only to foster impatience, the film only kicking into gear once its two protagonists meet and join forces.
At its core a fairly workman-like police procedural-style thriller (there’s an awful lot of montages where characters look at photos or scan old records while muttering plot points to themselves), The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s biggest assets are its two protagonists. As Blomkvist, a character clearly modelled on deceased author Larrson (a principled crusading journalist himself), Michael Nyquist brings a likeable crumpled nobility to the role but the film, like the books, belongs to Salander. Tough and spiky, Rapace brings a wounded vulnerability to the virtually sociopathic Salander, her outward hostility hinting at her inner fragility. She dominates the film whether she’s sodomising her abuser and tattooing “I rape women” on his chest, saving the passive Blomkvist’s life or moodily shoegazing while listening to her IPod.
Slick and tight, Niels Arden Oplev’s direction is as typically Scandinavian as flat-pack furniture; cold, clinical and precision engineered. It does the job well enough but there’s little passion. Similarly the script, while competent, hides few surprises and if you can’t work out who the killer is by the halfway mark, you probably shouldn’t be out on your own never mind sitting in a dark cinema. Claustrophobic and controlled, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an efficient, enjoyable thriller which will doubtless delight and disappoint fans of the books in equal measure. You may as well see it before Hollywood remakes it with Kristen Stewart.