Sunday, December 25, 2011

review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, Niels Arden Opley)

Here we are again, for the second time in a single week, discussing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This time it is the original Swedish version, which erupted onto the cinematic landscape only two years ago, in 2009. Its rise to fame was stratospheric, with film goers embracing its pulpy nature and the titular girl with the dragon tattoo, one of the more unique characters to inhabit a mainstream picture in some time. In fact, Montréal received the film a little bit before everybody else in North America (although why is a good question). If remember serves me correctly, it was an early summer release in '09 under the title Millenium, and the local press was quite adamant this was the movie event of the year. The strangest part is that the film came out again under the title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If one steps into an HMV store in Montréal, one can buy a Blu-ray of Millenium and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo even though they are one and the same film.

Neither the plots of the American or Swedish cinematic translations differ much from the novel, and given that it was only a few days ago that Between the Seats reviewed the David Fincher interpretation, this review shall not invest much effort in providing a synopsis, other than stating that the movie centres around a murder mystery. Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), once the CEO of Sweden's most powerful manufacturing corporation, hires disgraced Millenium journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to investigate the possible murder of his niece, which happened 40 years earlier. The elderly man suspects someone in his family to be the culprit. Eventually the protagonist calls upon the help of one Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who is unfriendly, lacks any sort of social skills, dresses like a goth punk, but possess truly phenomenal investigative and computer hacking skills.

Niels Arden Opley's version of the Stieg Larsson story owes the vast majority of its redeemable qualities to the actress whose name has been on everybody's lips for the past two years: Noomi Rapace. It is thanks to the talented Rapace that a character like Lisbeth who, under almost any other circumstances, would be absolutely detestable, proves to be the most enjoyable person on screen and by quite a fair margin at that. To genuinely make that character worthy of the viewer's interest and time could not have been an easy feat, for she has to balance out sprinkles of humanity with the many qualities which have earned her such notoriety. She is the nightmarish version of Sherlock Holmes, if you will. Whereas Rooney Mara, who plays the role in Fincher's film (very, very well, mind you) embraced the totally psychotic possible version of Lisbeth, Rapace succeeds at balancing her out ever so slightly. She does look weird and she does behave weirdly, that much is true. Despite this, the finer details of Rapace's performance, from subtle glances, to the way she turns her head when something affects her, to her more regular manner of speaking (Mara mostly talks in standoffish manner throughout her film, although again, in a good sense), all of it creates a more humanized version of the Lisbeth character, someone who feels a little more balanced. It could be safe to wager that mainstream audiences will feel more 'comfortable' with the Noomi Rapace interpretation than the Mara interpretation. This is by no means a slight against Rapace. Rather, it speaks to her strengths as an actress to play on all the counterbalancing aspects that make Lisbeth who she is.

Truth be told, Noomi Rapace's presence is so strong in this picture that provides virtually all of her scenes with a much needed lift, especially those involving her co-star, Michael Nyqvist. The latter is by no means a poor actor. He is doing what it appears the script is asking of his character, but therein lie two critical issues. The first is that the script has nothing interesting to say about Michael, even though at the outset of his journey he is a man who finds himself in the most difficult of situations, professionally speaking. Everything about a journalist hinges on his or her reputation and dependability. The film puts a decent amount of emphasis on that notion, in addition to teasing the audience with the possibility that Michael might have been framed. Such promise of terrific development is never fulfilled, with script never giving the viewer much to feed off of. The second issue at hand is that the actor, Michael Nyqvist, is himself unable to bring anything to the table. If he just has to sit at a lit table and read off his computer screen, then that is what Nyqvist does. If he is called upon to stare at a picture of the murder victim and ask aloud to himself in a shushed tone: 'What happened to you?...' that is what he does. Nyqvist is not the sort of actor who can elevate pedestrian material. It might be an unfair assessment because he is caught between a rock and a hard place. He is not, ultimately, the star of the show and the script really does not give him much to do, but somewhere in the middle the actor must (and the word must is stressed here) find something, anything, to work with. He appears a bit livelier when paired with Rapace, thankfully, yet the latter totally out acts the former. 


Watching this Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it became clear by the midway point that is was content, much like the recent English language version, to stuff in as much material as it could. The film lacks rhythm, even more so than its American counterpart. This is definitely a case where the story is merely going through the motions, from one scene to the next because clue A leads to clue B which leads to clue C and so on. Moments of understanding and discovery feel very perfunctory, something any murder mystery should avoid at all costs. Perhaps the only moment that carried serious weight, plot and theme-wise, was when Lisbeth chases after the killer, now known to her and Mikael, and, having cornered that person, is faced with a very personal dilemma as to what to do. A great moment, a very well directed moment, but such instances are infrequent. A bland version of the story, overall.

Reading the novel, it felt apparent what some of the book's deficiencies were. It concerned itself with far too many subplots and failed to make them all feel equally important. Still, a lot of material existed to make a solid mystery thriller., provided adequate adjustments were made. Does this Niels Arden Opley directed attempt fail on all accounts? No, but nor is it especially memorable either. It is the type of film perfect for the conditions under which this reviewer watched it: nothing to do and lots of time to kill prior to an important engagement later that day. The story is serviceable, nothing more. If one is absolutely intent on catching it either before or after discovering the new English-language version, the highest endorsement the film can receive is its extraordinary female lead, both the character and the actress. If she plays her cards smartly, Noomi Rapace will have a great career.

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