The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Review
Every now and then you come across an absolutely brilliant piece of writing; a novel (or series of books) which you simply cannot put down, which resonates and remains with you long after its enthralling narrative is over. These kinds of books – obviously bestsellers – sometimes get turned into movies, and, more often than not, tend to disappoint when compared to the written counterpart. But every once in a while you come across a rich story, and colourful characters, which are effectively translated into cinematic form. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an example of just that. A great book. And now a great movie.
Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist has 6 months left before he goes to jail. He used to write for a magazine called Millennium, but his last article, alleging arms smuggling and corruption involving a notorious businessman, Wennerstrom, is the source of all of his woes, and what he landed him in so much trouble. Contacted by aging millionaire Henrik Vanger, of the rich and prominent industrialist family, the Vanger Group, he is hired to investigate a missing girl during these, his last 6 months of freedom. And since he’s in self-imposed exile from the Millennium magazine and all of his friends and co-workers, he is happy for the distraction while he awaits his imminent incarceration. The missing girl was Vanger’s niece, Harriet, who disappeared some 40 years earlier – aged just 16 – and Vanger wants to know which of his nasty, backstabbing family members killed the sweet young girl.
Blomkvist’s investigation uncovers some pretty raw truths about the Vanger Group, with elderly (and some dead) family members known to have been Nazi sympathisers and participants, and others – just plain bad people. But he hits a stumbling block with a rather strange code that was found amidst Harriet’s things. Enter Lisbeth Salander, a striking, aloof, goth-dressed computer hacker with a dark past and a violent temper, who asserts herself into the investigation and proves to be a vital companion to Blomkvist. He, in turn, shows himself to be one of the few people in the world that she may actually be able to trust. Discovering a series of horrible murders, with ties to many within the Vanger Group, the unlikely duo will have to rely on that trust that they have formed if they are to survive the dark revelations.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of those rare acclaimed cinematic interpretations of beloved modern literary works. Although it does deviate occasionally from the source material (understandably reducing or even entirely cutting some arguably unnecessary sub-plots, for runtime), it still largely follows the narrative closely, conveying the intricate spiders-web story in a manageable fashion but still presenting it in a way that requires the viewer to pay careful attention throughout. Having recently experienced the masterpiece that is Inception, it is nice to see intelligent thrillers return to the forefront.
Characterisation is excellent, again staying true to the source material, and perfectly capturing the spirits of the colourful characters that were portrayed there. The disgraced journalist, and lead protagonist, Blomkvist is well portrayed by Michael Nyquist, who brings some honesty and authenticity to a person that is far from your archetypal hero. Convincing in his unresolved quest to find the truth, you truly believe that this guy has little to lose as he proceeds with his deadly investigation, despite the fact that he neither has the bulletproof invulnerability nor quick-witted off-handedness of all of the genres staple heroes.
Then there’s Noomi Rapace’s haunting portrayal of Blomkvist’s unlikely companion, Lisbeth Salander. I’m sure anybody who has read the book would have been desperate to see how they brought this strong heroine to life, and Rapace seems perfectly chosen for the role, bringing across all of the necessary elements: namely, a capacity to channel all of the horror that she has been through outward, rather than inward; her photographic memory perfectly recalling every horrific instance she has experienced whenever she needs the energy and anger to go that extra mile.
The Director, Niels Arden Oplev crafts a magnificent opening instalment with this dark and mysterious thriller, perfectly capturing the amazing Swedish vistas whilst always reminding the viewer that it is unbearably cold; giving us enough surprise turns in his story but always allowing them to seem pursuant to the course of the narrative, rather than coming across as incongruous blind-sides. He ties everything together very neatly, intermeshing the numerous elaborate story arcs in such a way that you are extremely satisfied as things develop, but persistently on edge about what might happen. His characters never indestructible, his events never implausible (well, almost, since I never bought the early explanation about who was suspected to have been sending the mounted flowers), his filmic translation of the first part of the late Stieg Larsson’s Magnum Opus is laudable and respectful of the material, and is a smart and superior thriller.
With all the praise out of the way, the film is not without its niggling issues, although they often stem from the publicity – and expectations – rather than from the productions themselves. Firstly, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a bit of a misleading title really, even if it is far more catchy than the original name. The book title (and the original film title) translates directly as Men Who Hate Women (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor), which is much more apt really, and the trio of stories is collectively called the ‘Millennium Trilogy’, which directly relates to Blomkvist’s magazine, of course. My point is that the movie has been somewhat mistakenly touted as a story about an enigmatic tough goth-girl who gets involved in a murder investigation – the eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo. However, if I were to sum up the story briefly, it would be: a tale about a disgraced investigative journalist who is hired to look into a girl who went missing 40 years ago, and who finds unexpected help from a mysterious young woman whose computer hacking expertise and photographic memory prove invaluable in his quest to find the truth. In other words, this movie is about Blomkvist, and not the colourful tattoo-lady, Lisbeth Salander.
That’s not to say Lisbeth isn’t important, but more that she is integral to Blomkvist’s mission, rather than on a mission of her own. Fans of the book – and those who are more familiar with the trilogy as a whole – will argue that she is the definitive lead character, but this movie does not quite paint things that way. I definitely see why she has kicked up such a storm – her almost iconic character is, without a doubt, the most interesting of those on offer – but this first chapter is more like an introduction to Lisbeth Salander, who appears as a part of the journey being made by Blomkvist. Maybe the later films will shift the balance, and focus more on her than on Blomkvist, but so far it’s clearly his movie and not hers.
Still, it’s a slight against the promotion of the film – and even some reviews that I have read about it – which often fails to acknowledge Blomkvist’s importance and overly promotes the tattooed lady, rather than a gripe with the movie itself, which is an undeniable masterpiece. I am also interested in David Fincher’s alternative Hollywood take on the Swedish material, which has finally been cast, with Daniel Craig in the lead (although I think the original choice, Clooney, would have suited the age of the character better, but obviously didn’t want to get tied in to a three-picture deal) and with relative newcomer Rooney Mara (Nancy in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake) signed up to be Lisbeth. Craig needs a solid franchise to get his teeth into during this protracted Bond hiatus, and Fincher is clearly capable of masterpieces himself. If he pulls the remake off in the same vein as Seven, we could be in for something special. Although, as with many of the Hollywood remakes of foreign films – that seem to be all the rage at the moment (like The Departed, Scorsese’s solid but ultimately unnecessary remake of the excellent Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs) – I can’t help that feeling things would be best left well alone.
Still it will be at least interesting to see how Hollywood handles the more controversial aspects of the production, namely, the graphic sexual violence. It should be noted that this movie is a strong 18-rated film, and is definitely not for the squeamish or easily offended. For those who are wondering why there is a need for such scenes, rest assured, they are utterly integral to character development. Unfortunately, since they are not directly relevant to the plot, Fincher may well be tempted (or Studio-forced) to sanitise the material in order to make it suitable for a wider US audience. And I have to admit that I can kinda see why: frankly, this is the sort of movie that you want to share – because it is so damn great – and yet you have to seriously think twice before you give it an unreserved recommendation. So consider yourself warned: this movie goes to some dark places.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the movie itself was released in Sweden (and France) in an alternative TV mini-series format (concurrently playing with the theatrical releases), which effectively made each instalment 3 hours long, adding over half an hour of material to the production. I can’t believe that the Studios did not consider putting these extended editions on this disc, as they would have clearly added something interesting, particularly for those who love the book. But, then again, we are no doubt looking at a double-dip trilogy box-set with extended cuts somewhere down the line, long after all of the films have finally finished their theatrical run. It’s just a shame because we’ve already had to wait over a year longer than the rest of the world (excluding the States) just to get the first movie, so it would have been nice if it had been presented in its most complete form. Still, this is an undeniably excellent first entry, and it should leave fans salivating for the second and third instalments (out, theatrically, this year). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a tense, involving, and superior bit of storytelling, and it comes highly recommended.