I have an inverse-ratio reaction to hype. The more the masses are clamouring to read something or watch something, the less my inclination to approach that work. Mainly it’s because I recognize my own capacity for disappointment, partly because I’d rather wait till all the fuss is died down, and not a little bit because I’m because a contrary old bugger.
I steered clear of Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy while it was pitching its tripartite tent on the higher slopes of the Times bestseller list and beating off all competition with a stick. I’d heard various opinions, from “riveting if not particularly subtle thrillers” to “second-rate Agatha Christie with some nasty anal rape”. I still haven’t approached a single volume.
The film versions bypassed me on the big screen. They were truncations of Swedish TV productions, each three-hour adaptation shorn of about forty minutes’ for its big screen release to conform to a more commercial running time. I had it on good authority that if you weren’t familiar with the books, you’d be in for a lot of head scratching.
Then the trilogy in its uncut nine-hour epicness hit the shelves in a stupidly cheap box set and – finally – curiosity got the better of me.
The title is something of a misnomer*, indicating that Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) – she of the oriental-themed ink-work – is the protagonist. Actually, she’s pretty much second fiddle (although a pretty bloody essential second fiddle, particularly in the last act) to Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading journalist for radical magazine Millennium who, as the story starts, is facing a three-month custodial sentence after a major corporation take him to court over an article. It soon becomes apparent that Blomkvist was set up.
With six months until he has to serve his sentence, Blomkvist accepts an assignment from Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the octogenarian senior partner in a major manufacturing company. Vanger wants him to investigate the disappearance, forty years ago, of his niece. He is convinced she was murdered and that one of his family is the killer.
Salander, initially hired by the corporation responsible for prosecuting Blomkvist to hack him, becomes drawn to his investigation. She has a troubled background, having torched her abusive father as a girl (the backstory is a tad sketchy, though the image of a man in flames plunging out of a BMW is certainly memorable!) and is currently paroled under the supervision of a “guardian”. This, ahem, “gentleman” is Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), a controlling sadist who blackmails her into sexual services, then assaults and anally rapes her. Salander’s revenge on him, somewhere around the mid-point, is a textbook exercise in “an eye for an eye”. Or in this case a – … actually, I’ll just let you find out for yourselves.
The “eye for an eye” aesthetic is apposite, since Salander twigs to a Biblical clue in Blomkvist’s investigation and the two become unlikely allies. Once again, Blomkvist finds himself up against corruption in big business, ties to Sweden’s pre-war Nazi sympathy movement, and a sadistic antagonist with a Fritzl-like prison/torture chamber basement conversion.
It’s to director Niels Arden Oplev’s credit that he doesn’t let this miasma of fascism, corruption, degeneracy and misogyny descend into the lurid depths it could so easily have plumbed. In fact, the thing that struck me most about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ was its portrayal of evil as something bland and almost desultory. There’s nothing gothic or grotesque about the villain’s basement, even when he opens a cabinet the inner surfaces of which are decorated with photographs of his victims at point of expiration. Au contraire, it’s a utilitarian and rather mundane set-up, as if Ikea had designed a range for the psychopathic rapist on a budget.
The made-for-TV origins of the project leave a few other scenes looking unintentionally bland, as well (which is why I’m looking forward to seeing what a great visual stylistic like David Fincher will do with the remake), with only Blomkvist and Salander’s connect-the-dots dash around Sweden as they revisit old murder scenes and clues fall into place, breaking out into a truly cinematic sequence.
It’s a curious piece of work, all told, and I’m tempted to approach the books now, just to see if the same dichotomy is present. There’s a sense that a real socio-political statement on twentieth century Sweden is being striven for – one, moreover, that’s wrapped up in an indictment of misogyny – and yet the plot points, narrative tropes and dramatic set-pieces employed to reach it are pure pulpy hokum.
Still, it benefits from solid performances all round, with Nyqvist convincingly essaying a world-weary but idealistic protagonist and Rapace – in her breakout role – fucking owning the film as the tattoo’d, leather-jacketed, studded-collar-wearing angel of vengeance that is Lisbeth Salander. A heroine of our vicious times.
*Both book and film in their indigenous language go by the title ‘Men Who HateWomen’.