The 16-year old girl Harriet Vanger disappeared without a trace, on September 29th 1966. Nearly forty years later a journalist by the name of Mikael Blomqvist gets an unusual assignment. He's contacted by the industrial leader Henrik Vanger, who wants him to write the history of the Vanger family. The family chronicle is just a cover for the real assignment: to find out about what really happened to Harriet. Mikael who recently been indicted and convicted on counts of slander, feels that he need a break from his job on the Millennium magazine take on the job. He gets help from the young and troubled computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. Together the odd couple starts to dig in the past of the Vanger family and meet a darker and bloodier history than the ever could have imagined...
In 2009 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was the most successful film in Europe, despite not having a UK or Ireland release. The impetus was the success of Stieg Larsson’s posthumous Millennium Trilogy – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – which have become a publishing phenomenon, shifting approximately 30 million copies worldwide with little sign of the sales abating.
It’s almost ritualistic to note when a book is adapted into a movie that they’re two distinct versions, but that’s a somewhat disingenuous reply here because of the interest and even fanaticism that the source material has engendered. Many people want the three adaptations to be as faithful as possible to how they imagine the protagonists and their actions. The responsibility for the first film fell to Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev, who had to his credit both a fast paced crime television series (The Eagle) and several films where children challenged the power of the adult world (World’s Apart, We Shall Overcome); both ideas are at work here.
Even at two-and-a-half hours, Oplev’s film can’t encompass the sheer breadth of Larsson’s skills as a social policy polymath. The text is a page turner that also works as an attack on the Swedish welfare state, the corruption, both personal and political, that festers beneath the reserved national character, and endemic violence against women. It’s Karl Marx rewriting Agatha Christie.
But if he can’t muster the sheer weight of Larsson’s text, Oplev can choose to overwhelm us. The trilogy’s most distinctive, now virtually mythic, character is Lisbeth Salander, the bisexual, Gothic computer hacker whose childhood, as a ward of the state, has left damaged and defiant. Played by cold, implacable fury by Noomi Rapace – one look at her eyes and you forget about the spiked dog collar – Salander refuses to take a step backwards once engaged: jostled by a group of hooligans in the underground she fights one of them, while she is repeatedly attacked by her new state guardian, Bjurman (Peter Andersson), who believes he can dole out her money in exchange for exploiting her body. These exchanges are bloody and unexpected, rupturing the smooth progression of the plot.
Salander’s battles are the reminder that the original Swedish title translated as Men Who Hate Women; misogyny has a pathologically violent edge here, which makes it all the more tricky that a relationship develops between Salander and the man she at first spies on, and then works with, disgraced investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). Thankfully Nyqvist plays the part with shaggy simplicity, even a certain resignation, and that neatly offsets Rapace’s trip-wire demeanour.
When Blomkvist first accepts a job from ageing industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to look into the mysterious disappearance of his niece from the family’s island retreat 40 years prior, he is marking time, almost defeated. But the case reinvigorates him, also attracting Salander. Oplev manipulates the mystery with deft care, following the characters through the resources of four decades prior; the time lapsed means Salander’s computer prowess is mostly superfluous, drawing her closer to Blomkvist since they must cooperate in deduction and elimination.
Yet it’s not a particularly involved situation – it’s apparent that the villain is a member of the dysfunctional Vanger clan (Nazis and drunks are a specialty) and they circle the investigation since they all live in close vicinity. Without the sheer depth of the broader themes, the story’s spine is linear. The individual evil here is malignant, steady, enduring, because it must reflect the broader ideas the book engages, but that doesn’t make for a flourish in the reveal, or genuine terror. Oplev doesn’t have the operatically twisted worldview to work with that Thomas Harris gifted Jonathan Demme with for The Silence of the Lambs.
But the two leads are expertly sketched, and then played by the actors, and there is a lovely transposition of genre responsibilities when it at one stage Salander must race to rescue the imperiled Blomkvist. This is a capable, engaging thriller, which ties up one mystery even as it asks another about the past of Lisbeth Salander. The screen has a new avenging angel.
Watch 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'
Wednesday 22 September, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming after at SBS On Demand
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Ewa Fröling