Saturday, 28 August 2010


On Tuesday's BBC World Service programme The Strand, I discussed The Girl Who Played With Fire, which was released in Britain yesterday. You can hear that on BBC I Player here, for a couple of more days, it's the lead item in the running order. Here's a fuller take on the film:

The second Swedish film adapted from Stieg Larsson's Millennium novels is very different from the first, a more complicated yet less layered movie, with a number of impressive set-pieces and an even more impressive performance by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. More complicated but less layered may sound an oxymoron, so let me explain.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was scripted by a pair of extremely talented Danish feature film makers, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, and directed by another Dane, Niels Arden Oplev. They trimmed down the book considerably, particularly cutting back on Mikke Blomqvist's romances, to focus on his relationship with Lisbeth Salander. This had the effect of simplifying the story, making it more of a thriller, but it worked and kept a huge book manageable on film. When I saw the preview of that film, John Landis was sitting by me, and afterwards he exclaimed 'it's like an episode of Columbo', which says as much about his sensitivity to nuance as to plot arc, but in a way he was right. Take away the stuff about Swedish society, Nazi connections, abuse of women, and serial killers and it is more like a Columbo plot, though it was made so well, shot so subtly, it was hard to make the connection visually.

But The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second installment of the trilogy, allows that sort of connection to be made more easily. The films are being shot with Swedish and German television in mind, and this one was made by a director (Daniel Alfredsson) who, though he has made features, was also head of drama at SVT as well as a proflific and good television director, and scripted by Jonas Frykberg, whose career has mainly been in TV. This is not a question of quality as much as scale; this film seems scaled far more for the small screen than the first one. On The Strand I used the example of advocat Bjurman's summer house, where he has hidden Salander's files. Both times we see it, although the viewer should know what it is, Alfredsson makes sure to pull back to show the mailbox at the entrance to the driveway, the kind of establishing shorthand we expect on TV.

But the real difference between the two films is in the scripting, because this one remains very faithful to the novel, which has good and bad points. The bad is that, as with the first volume, the book is very densely plotted, and its characters are given lots of back story and time to develop. The result is that a number of times in this film, the characters have to explain things to each other, that is, to us, the audience. Certain interesting characters, like the detective Bublanski, or Salander's old boss Armanskij, don't get a chance to be developed here, while others, like Blomkvist's sister, are introduced with no explanation (we see her Italian in-laws, but don't learn she's a leading criminal lawyer--that presumably has been left for the third installment). There is also more romance in this one, we not only get a somewhat gratuitous but otherwise rewarding lesbian love scene with Rapace and Yasmin Garbi, but we see Blomkvist's relationship with his editor, Erika, not only when they are in bed but when he tells his in-laws he's in love with a married woman. That the excellent Lena Endre gets more space as Erika is another positive, though her role seems to be much like hers in the Swedish Wallander series, to act as a brake on the main male character. Interestingly, both she and Michael Nykvist are a bit older than the book's characters; Nykvist's Blomkvist is played with belly extended to make the point he's not a natural ladies' man.

There is also space for Per Oscarsson to deliver a fine performance as the stroke-ridden Palmgren, Salander's original guardian, and Peter Andersson is suitably slimy as Bjurman. Paolo Roberto, playing himself, is quite good, though I'm not sure we actually needed a car chase, except to re-establish this as a TV movie, but the difficulty with the character of Niederman, with his inability to feel pain, makes it difficult, and Micke Spreitz with his dyed hair reminded me of Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love (which, interestingly, is also the title of Mia's book about the imported sex trade), if not Ivan Drago from Rocky whatever number it was.

It is also odd how small anomalies stand out in the continuity. I didn't go back to the book to check, but did Miriam Wu really carry Salander's birthday present around in her purse for a full
year on the off-chance she might show up again? When Salander beats up the two motorcycle gang guys, and rides off on one of their bikes, where did she find a helmet that fits her? Neither biker wore one, nor were they carrying one (though I seem to recall in the book they might have been for a girlfriend). And a plot revolving around a key dropped by a woman who makes few mistakes of panic does stretch things a bit.

Those who have read the books will find this film touches all the bases. For those who haven't, it may be a bit hard to follow, but many of them will be presumed to have seen the first installment, which would make things a bit easier. But the selling point of this second film is Noomi Rapace. The scene where she dons face paint to frighten the journalist who's been linked to the sex trade is a bravura set-piece for her, and, much as the first film was Blomkvist's, with Salander coming to the rescue, this one is hers, with Blomkvist doing the same. That they play only one scene together makes that point even clearer.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is very good television, and it's an entertaining film, if not as impressive as its predecessor. And though Rooney Mara may come from American football royalty (her father's family owns the New York Giants and her mother's the Pittsburgh Steelers) she will have her work cut out trying to match Noomi Rapace's performance. I'll suggest my take on what the American version may be like sometime in the future (hint: Daniel Craig doesn't write for a small left-wing magazine, but for the Wall Street Journal).

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