Ok, first things first, there’s some spoilers ahead. So, unless you’re one of the three people left on the planet who’s not read Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s sequence of books on which these movies are based, you might want to turn away now.
One of the most contested roles in Hollywood right now is Lisbeth Salander, the Gothy, tattooed computer hacker at the centre of Larsson’s books.
Troubled, harassed and vengeful, she’s the natural successor to The Terminator’s Sarah Connor, Ripley from the Alien films and The Bride in Kill Bill. To any actress, she’s the kind of hefty female character that, sadly, doesn’t come around very often in movies. So, if your name is Carey Mulligan, Ellen Page, Kristen Stewart or even Emma Watson, chances are you have already started beating a path to the door of David Fincher, who’s signed to direct the American remake.
For now, though, there is Noomi Rapace, who plays Lisbeth in all three of the original Swedish movies. Rapace, who looks like a cross between Tamsin Grieg and Justine Frischmann, is electrifying in both The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire. She brings a strong, wounded dignity to Lisbeth, shifting convincingly between sullen, feral and vulnerable. The pairing of Rapace with hangdog Michael Nyqvist, as investigative magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist, made for a great visual odd couple in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. That Daniel Craig is slated to play Blomkvist in Fincher’s film perhaps signals a shift towards a more glamorous, Hollywoodised central pairing.
The Girl Who Played With Fire opens a year after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and picks up several outstanding plot threads. There’s the small matter, for instance, of Lisbeth’s abusive guardian Nils Bjurman. Bjurman raped Lisbeth several times during the first film; she retaliated by secretly filming one encounter and then tattooing across his chest the words, I AM A SADISTIC PIG A PERVERT AND A RAPIST. As The Girl Who Played With Fire opens, Bjurman wants Lisbeth’s film back, and employs some nasty dudes to find it. Meanwhile, Blomkvist has just taken on a new freelancer who is working on an expose of sex trafficking that will incriminate a number of high-ranking officials. These two storylines converge in a way that feels, eventually, contrived; though the circuitous route they take on their way there, and the incidental plot additions, twists and auxiliary characters that come and go give the feeling of plot heft.
Larssen himself is pretty guilty of plundering many genre tropes and plot staples. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, after all, concerned itself with Nazis, corruption, incest and serial murder; surely, we’re been here before? At least, I guess, The Girl Who Played With Fire tries to find wriggle-room within its pulp conventions, and the film’s grand conspiracy turns out to lead in an unexpected direction. Astonishingly, for this he seems to draw on Star Wars, and particularly the third act revelations in The Empire Strikes Back. But these serve less as resolutions, more as a way of setting up the third film, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Really, one thing The Girl Who Played With Fire lacks is a self-contained narrative arc; something to give the film its own satisfactory ending.
It’s also a pretty grim film. However strong and empowered a character Lisbeth is, there’s part of me that feels uncomfortable with the way she’s treated in both these films. The degrees of abuse she undergoes, particularly, remind me in places of the Seventies horror exploitation cycle. In the final act, she’s buried alive outside a backwoods compound by a deformed maniac and his monstrous henchman. Axes are involved. You might call it the Swedish Chainsaw Massacre, it so closely resembles the kind of tortures meted out by Leatherface to poor Sally in Tobe Hooper’s movie.
Incoming director Daniel Alfredson (whose brother Tomas directed Let The Right One In) maintains the look of the first film; a muted colour palette prevails (one, now I think about it, that’s pretty suited to David Fincher, who likes a bit of murk). Certainly, some of the freshness and originality of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is absent here. It’s true, too, by keeping Lisbeth and Blomkvist separate for nearly the entire film, Alfredson deprives us of the dynamic between the two that worked so well in the first film. There’s an unambitious efficiency, too, to the film. It feels like a TV film, and while at its heart these books are largely police procedurals, they lack the qualities of, say, Prime Suspect.
The Girl Who Played With Fire opens in the UK on August 27