WEBTAKES: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Reviewed by Robert Sklar

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

Produced by Sören Staermose; directed by Niels Arden Oplev; screenplay by Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson; cinematography by Eric Kress; production design by Niels Sejer; costumes by Cilla Rörby; editing by Anne Østerud and Jannus Billeskov Jansen; music by Jacob Groth; starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, and Sven-Bertil Taube. Color, 152 mins., Swedish with English subtitles. A Music Box Films release, www.musicboxfilms.com.

If your picture of Sweden, formed perhaps by Ingmar Bergman, is of romping blondes and anguished Lutherans—or anguished blondes and romping Lutherans—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will introduce you to some other Swedish types: Nazis, sex perverts, and serial killers, to name a few.

The film’s backstory is as tragically thrilling as its narrative. In 2004 a left-wing Swedish journalist, Stieg Larsson, died suddenly, at age 50, leaving on his desk the manuscripts of three linked crime novels. When published, this so-called “Millennium Trilogy” (so named after a magazine the editors of which are centrally featured) became a stunning worldwide success story, a top bestseller in multiple languages, with millions of copies in print. As of February 2010, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoohad been on The New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list for over thirty weeks, with its successor, The Girl Who Played with Fire, on the hardcover fiction list for fifteen. The trilogy’s U.S. publisher was frustrating readers by holding off issuing the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, available in the U.K. since fall 2009 (I got my copy in Stockholm, although that wasn’t the reason for my trip).

Film versions of all three books were released in Sweden in 2009 and were the prime reason that Sweden’s box-office take rose 22% over the previous year and that Swedish films’ share of the total was a record-high 33%, as reported by VarietyThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo topped the list, The Girl Who Played with Fire came in second, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest sixth. All these numbers must warm the cockles of the U.S. distributor, Music Box Films. It’s planning an extraordinarily wide opening for a subtitled foreign-language film, 39 screens in 33 cities, as of this writing. All those readers who bought Larsson’s books must be pining to see his characters made flesh.

One character, for sure. The Girl. You may have noticed that all three volumes begin with the same two words in English. Credit an unknown publishing genius: only the second Swedish book has a similar title (the original title of the first book translates as “Men Who Hate Women,” which seems an unlikely candidate for the U.S. pop charts). The Girl is the selling point: Larsson’s creation, Lisbeth Salander, who moves the books from the pulp racks to the front table. The Times bestseller descriptions, requiring brevity, call her a “hacker,” but that hardly begins to tell the tale. She’s a fantasy, to be sure, but perhaps of an original kind: punk, surly, secretive, a genius of sorts (though treated as mentally deficient by authorities), a computer whiz with a photographic memory, physically fearless, ruthless, a victim of state repression, harboring deep resentments and longings for revenge that will be explained and played out over the three texts. She is tattooed, pierced, dressed in black, wearing black lipstick, with dark hair cut short and straight and falling over one eye, slight, tomboyish, sleeps with men and women. In Noomi Rapace, an Icelandic-Swedish performer whose father was Spanish, the filmmakers have found an actor capable of bringing this dream figure convincingly to life.

Lisbeth shares the story’s agency with journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist, in a quiet, stoic performance), Millennium magazine’s publisher, who has suffered disgrace and a prison sentence after being convicted of libeling a controversial businessman. Some still believe in his rectitude however, and are convinced that he was set up for a fall, as shown when an elderly industrialist hires him, on the pretext of writing his biography, to reopen the decades-old case of a niece who disappeared. This sets off the events that lead to confrontations with the Nazis, perverts, and killers mentioned above.

Larsson’s books are lengthy and repetitive (but who can quarrel with success), and Danish director Niels Arden Oplev and scriptwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel have been challenged to condense the novel’s details even into a film running more than two and a half hours. The distinguished Swedish performer Lena Endre, third-billed as Erika Berger, Millennium’s editor and a key figure in the book, seems to have ended up almost entirely on the cutting room floor, briefly visible in only a few scenes and entirely inconsequential to the story. Other characters and plot complications are also sharply curtailed. Some brief scenes, meanwhile, are imported from later books, as foretastes or to clarify Lisbeth’s behavior earlier than Larsson chose to. (A different director and writer worked on the second and third films.)

Readers of the novels, such as this reviewer, may not fully appreciate the filmmakers’ skill in building the tension and suspense of a narrative the outcome of which they already know. All one can say is that director Oplev, along with cinematographer Eric Kress and the editors and designers, have made a convincing visualization of Larsson’s tale and coped effectively with the demands of detailed exposition. Keep your eyes open for films two and three, which, assuming that they follow the books as closely as this one, will treat Swedish society and politics in more complex and compelling fashion. And hope for a speedy rather than a delayed rollout.

To buy the novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, click here.

Robert Sklar is author of Movie-Made America and many other books on film.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.