In this follow-up to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the focus falls on the character of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Accused of a triple murder, she is drawn into tangled web of intrigue that leads back to her murky past, while Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) does everything in his power to prove that she is innocent.
Given that he passed away before success, let alone the status of publishing phenomenon, greeted his career as an author, mythic enhancement has become a necessary part of Stieg Larsson’s story when it comes to the creation of the Millennium Trilogy. But here’s a factor that, at least until this film adaptation, may have been overlooked: he was writing the books to enjoy himself. The three novels may be as thick as his anger against the entrenched failings and flaws of the Swedish state, but they’re also generously staffed with moments of fantasy bordering on the ludicrous. He wasn’t holding back.
Hence The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second novel and now movie in the series, features among other things a giant thug who cannot feel pain, a woman digging herself out of a grave and the autobiographical Mikael Blomkvist still proving to be unlikely catnip to Sweden’s female populace. It’s entertaining, but a bit daft, with the crucial distinction being that this picture doesn’t divert you so easily from those faults as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did.
Director Niels Arden Oplev opted out of returning for the sequel, and he’s been replaced for this outing and the forthcoming The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Daniel Alfredson. The new filmmaker is somewhat coarser at key moments, without Oplev’s feeling for when to hold a scene a beat or two more for contemplative worth, but most of the problems are structural, something he can’t address without alienating a vast and loyal existing audience.
The story picks up a year after the original, with Blomqvist back at his Stockholm magazine Millennium and his momentary co-investigator and lover Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) somewhere far warmer. But she is unsettled, as if she senses trouble, and returns to Stockholm just as Bjurman (Peter Andersson), her nominal state guardian, who she has been blackmailing to co-operate, is murdered as well as a new reporter for Millennium and his girlfriend, who have been documenting the underground sex trade. Salander’s fingerprints are on the gun used to shoot all three people.
For much of the picture the two leads are separated, their interaction mediated by communications that only exacerbate the distance. It’s a kind of modern love affair, but it never resonates, so you’re left to appreciate how the two characters had a friction that was unreadable but elevating when they were actually working together in Dragon Tattoo. Noomi Rapace still portrays Salander with a fearsome clarity and regard for her own needs, but as the most wanted woman in Sweden the character is naturally keeping a low profile; she has to hide out from a system she previously confronted.
The plot also lacks a mystery to drive events. It’s plainly clear, given how both protagonists set to work unraveling the case, that Salander didn’t murder three people. So there is rushing here and there, clues from files, and mysterious names – 'Zala" – that must be decoded. None of it has the visual grace of Dragon Tattoo sequences such as the one featuring the use of 40-year-old stills to find a killer’s face – it’s very busy, very blunt.
The paring down from page to screen is also intrusive at certain points. The hulking Neidermann (Micki Spreitz), who previously terrorised all and sundry, flees from a crucial moment without explanation, leaving behind a barely alive victim at his mercy. Readers of the book know that he thinks the person is a vengeful ghost ('a being that had come back from the other side of the grave"), but the movie leaves you to ponder what has spooked a man who cannot feel pain. (A gambit already hackneyed when the Bond franchise used it for 1999’s The World is Not Enough.)
Those committed to the books will fill in such gaps without undue consideration, but The Girl Who Played with Fire is simply not as welcoming, nor rewarding, to novices as its predecessor was. If Hollywood opts to remake it, a few changes to the source material might be welcome for once.