The massive global popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of novels owes not as much to their innovation or any authorial distinctiveness as to just how successfully they stick to the classic rules of thriller storytelling – establish memorable characters while placing them up the proverbial creek and then show how they manage to wriggle out of the sticky situation while solving the plot’s central mystery. It should come as little surprise, then, that Niels Arden Oplev’s rigorously effective and entertaining screen adaptation plays to this strong suit; yes, on the whole it plays to the standard genre rules, but in exploiting these to their full potential what emerges is one of the more memorable – and unashamedly thrilling – thrillers of recent times.
The title The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo places the focus of the film on character, choosing to eschew both the unappealing if more interesting original Swedish title Men Who Hate Women as well as the rather more forgettable Millenium tag which it was carrying at last year’s Frightfest. A basic description of said titular Lisbeth Salander as a high-kicking, bisexual computer hacker does make her sound like the kind of mess of cliches one might expect to see in an early 90s straight-to-video erotic thriller, but between Larsson, Oplev and striking lead actress Noomi Rapace she somehow seems to transcend this and emerge as a likeable character, just within the realms of the believable as half unapologetic outsider, half fantastic super heroine.
When compared to the preposterousness of comparable Hollywood leading females – stand up, Keira Knightley’s Domino – she carries a much more believably tough persona, both mentally and physically, illustrated nowhere better than in the unsettling early scenes showing her abuse by her unmistakeably evil legal guardian Nils Bjurman. He, a respectable lawyer and apparent pillar of society, behind closed doors turns out to be a violent sadist towards his ward, yet as he explains to Lisbeth his position of power allows him to be able to get away with his violent fetishes unquestioned. A recurring undercurrent in the film will be not merely the misogyny of individuals, but its virtual enshrinement in the power structures of seemingly placid, progressive Swedish society.
A pleasing amount of time is spent carefully establishing Lisbeth’s past history – naturally as means of setting up not just one film but the three of the projected trilogy – but perhaps a little too much at the expense of introducing the main thrust of the story. So too, the significance of her screen partner and yang to her yin, Mikael Blomkvist, editor of the tenacious and controversial investigative magazine Millennium – presumably a Swedish equivalent of the British Private Eye, though this unfortunately produces an unwelcome parallel with Ian Hislop. Licking his wounds following losing a high-profile libel case after the publication of a particular article, Mikael finds himself not only facing a jail sentence but also his being tailed electronically by the hacker-stalker Sander and courted by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger who wants to enlist his investigatory skills to investigate the disappearance of his niece, who went missing more than forty years previously.
Cue the mystery plot and, predictably, the coming together of unlikely pairing Salander and Blomkvist. Some kind of chemistry between the two, both professional and personal, inevitably begins to arise – he is obviously flattered by the interest shown in him and his work by his newly-found ingénue, she drawn to him in varying degrees as both a crusading truth-seeking hero and a surrogate father-figure. As the mystery plot begins to pick up pace and the pair spend ever-increasing amounts of time together alternately staring at their laptop screens, flitting between legwork at significant locations and bookwork at archives, and occasionally getting into scrapes with less-than-friendly interested parties, their strange working relationship shows signs of teetering over into something more. Accusations here of middle-aged man wish-fulfilment are perhaps fair, and the lurch towards the heteronormal from the more ambiguous undermines the unconventionality of our heroine, but these complaints ought to be laid at the door of Larsson himself.
Director Oplev does nothing particularly spectacular, though one might argue it is enough that he manages successfully to balance off this burgeoning if rocky central relationship with the demands of the series of convoluted plot turns that even Raymond Chandler might have balked at. What is a long duration of 152 minutes fly by pretty effortlessly, largely thanks to the numerous alleyways of intrigue the pair take us wandering down, labouring significantly only in the final reel coda, whose presence necessarily sets the audience up for the two films to follow.
Quite extraordinarily – largely indicative of the substantial global following Larsson’s novels have enjoyed – the film earned comparable box-office receipts to Ron Howard’s megabucks behemoth-like Dan Brown pot-boiler Angels and Demons (2009) when both opened at similar times to each other across Europe last year, an unthinkable level of success for a Swedish-language film. I doubt whether many of those fans who saw it could have been disappointed with this entertaining, effective and surprisingly endearing home-grown adaptation of a modern cult classic, not least before the inevitable glossier and sanitised Hollywood remake sits Megan Fox (or suchlike) in front of Lisbeth’s laptop.