Sunday, December 20, 2009

How Swede It Is

It was two years ago yesterday that The Rap Sheet first featured a review of Swedish journalist-novelist Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (originally titled Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women), the opening installment of his “Millennium Trilogy.” Not long after cracking the spine on that thriller, I became an almost obsessive backer of the late Larsson’s fiction. Seeing his novels subsequently scale the UK and U.S. bestseller charts, I knew I was not alone in appreciating the quality of Larsson’s work.

Now, two years on, we offer this first review of the Swedish original film Men Who Hate Women. The picture comes from Yellow Bird Productions, which also gave us the magnificent original Swedish movie series Wallander, made from Henning Mankell’s bestselling crime novels. Men Who Hate Women premiered in Sweden this last February, with the English-subtitled version (renamed, of course, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) being previewed in August of this year at London’s Fright-Fest Film Festival. Then, in September, the second movie based on Larsson’s fiction, The Girl Who Played with Fire, debuted in Swedish theaters. As with its predecessor, that second picture opened to both critical and commercial acclaim. The third and final Yellow Bird film made from Larsson’s thrillers, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is currently being readied for release. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures holds U.S. rights to an American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with producer Scott Rudin attached to the project.

I was unable to attend the screening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in August. So I was delighted when Quercus/MacLehose Press, Larsson’s British publisher, invited me, together with several other critics, to preview the film on December 17.

I spent that morning, last Thursday, pawing through the bookstores of London. My visits included a depressing one to the Borders store in Charing Cross Road. Like all the Borders outlets in the UK and Ireland, this one was scheduled to close on December 22, so was holding a rushed sale of its inventory, with books marked down between 30 percent and 70 percent. Managers were even selling off the furniture and fixtures, bookshelves, sofas, tables, and chairs. It felt like the barbarians had crossed the Tiber, as the shelves were being stripped. This was yet another reminder of how bad the UK publishing business has been this year. To boost my spirits, and pick up a few extra titles (including Journal, by Hélène Berr, recently touted among the decade’s “best unread books”), I crossed the street to Foyles, one of London’s greatest remaining bookshops, where the atmosphere appeared much more optimistic.

From there, I headed off with my hold-all to the Soho district and the private screening room rented by Quercus.

I was greeted with a glass of wine by Ron Beard, who runs Quercus’ paperback division--quite a hectic position, given how fast the Larsson novels are flying off paperback shelves these days. My guess is that about 30 people had been invited to this screening. I was pleased also to see there publisher Christopher MacLehose, with whom I traded a few pats on the back, both of us having predicted the whole Stieg Larsson phenomenon. We went on to discuss BBC4’s serialization of the original Swedish version of Wallander, as opposed to the British version starring Kenneth Branagh. I told MacLehose, who was the first to publish Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason in Britain (and has championed much translated fiction over the years), that during my lunch last week with The Times’ crime-fiction critic, Marcel Berlins, he recounted his recent interview with Mankell, and how Mankell told him that he preferred Branagh’s Wallander. Why? Because its episodes tended to focus on one plot strand and how it affected Detective Kurt Wallander, while the Swedish version wove together several plot strands about Wallander, diffusing the focus around many of the secondary characters.

My monopolizing of MacLehose had to end, of course, when he was called to invite everyone in to the screening room. He went on to welcome us all, and advised us to take a “comfort break” before the film began, since it’s gripping enough (even at more than two and a half hours long) that we wouldn’t want to be running to the restroom before the credits rolled. He said this with such passion, that his audience quivered with anticipation. One other bit of advice from MacLehose: that if we were squeamish about graphic violence, especially of a sexual nature, we ought to leave the auditorium before the projector started.

And with that the lights went down. (Reader alert: Those of you who have not enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in book form, note that there may be spoilers below--so read at your own peril.)

The film follows Larsson’s novel very closely, beginning with a short prologue that features 82-year-old Henrik Vanger, former CEO of the Vanger Corporation, as he opens a package from Hong Kong containing a pressed flower in a picture frame. I was startled to see the Swedish actor Sven-Bertil Taube playing Vanger. In my youth, one of my favorite Alistair MacLean novels was Puppet on a Chain (1969), which was later turned into a film with Taube playing Interpol agent Paul Sherman. That movie featured a spectacular high-speed boat chase through the famous canals of Amsterdam. It was strange to see Taube on screen again after all these years--and yes, he has aged, but when I looked at him on screen, I could still see the handsome looks he had in such 1970s film thrillers as The Eagle Has Landed and Game for Vultures.

From there, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shows us journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) facing disaster, due to the failure of a court case against the corrupt Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Running parallel is the plot-strand about Lisabeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who works as a researcher with a security firm hired to investigate Blomkvist for the Vanger Corporation. Unlike the novel, the film avoids much of the business preamble, moving quickly to Salander’s discovery that Blomkvist is a decent man, and that the whole trial was fixed by Wennerstrom. The staff at Blomkvist’s Millennium magazine is introduced only briefly, and publisher Erica Berger--who’s one of Blomkvist’s lovers--has but a minor part in the proceedings. In fact, Blomkvist’s amorous nature is toned down considerably for this film, making it much more realistic.

We’re offered the nasty assault on Salander and her terrible retribution, which again are scenes as visceral as anything you’re likely to encounter in mainstream cinema. The editing of this picture is magnificent. None of the violent sexual attacks are presented with anything like titillation; in fact, they are terrifying, being filmed in an almost surreal documentary style. Nonetheless, I heard many seats creaking around me, as Salander was violated. The discomfort in the auditorium was palpable.

The action then shifts to the island the Vanger clan owns, and on which its members live. I gasped, because Henrik Vanger’s mansion looked exactly as I had imagined it from reading the novel. I admire the way the film managed to delineate the mass of family characters, providing explanations but not confusion. Blomkvist and Salander’s investigation for Henrik Vanger of the disappearance of his brother’s teenage granddaughter, Harriet, certainly holds suspense and the actors playing the family all appear sinister and creepy. And I was pleased that Blomkvist manages to keep his trousers on when approached by Cecelia Vanger for a “late night drink”--unlike in the novel, where he sleeps with anyone bearing a pulse.

As one would expect, a number of subplots have been either truncated or eliminated altogether in order to keep this film’s action moving. But the results are impressive. The last 40 minutes, in particular, remain a blur in my memory, as the plot had me gripping the arm rests on my seat. Even though many of us had read Larsson’s book and already knew the story’s outcome, the action kept us breathless. Thankfully, the filmmakers truncated the closing section, giving us the rescue of Blomkvist by Salander, Blomkvist’s visit to Australia, and the return to glory following Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom’s defeat.

You can put me down right now as saying, the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is going to be a “sleeper hit” in 2010. Even at 2.5 hours in length, the movie seemed to jet by. Afterward, the buzz was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The only thing we all agreed upon was that the level of violence in this picture was disturbing. My own stomach turned a bit queasy during the first scene in which we witness Salander enduring the sexual advances of her guardian, the corrupt lawyer Nils Erik Bjurman (Peter Andersson), and then having to clean herself up later. Actress Rapace is perfectly cast as Larsson’s heroine, both in terms of her appearance and her snake-like movements. She demonstrates that unlikely combination of confidence and insecurity in a person who’s a social misfit. One minute she’s quiet and reserved, and then the next she’s kicking a thug on the subway and jamming a broken bottle into his face.

Two other things make this film work well: the English subtitles, which are particularly well done; and the filmmakers’ efforts to keep the techno side of things bang-up to date. The investigation on Vanger’s Island is kept interesting by having Salander and Blomkvist work parallel sides of the case, their probes finally colliding when Blomkvist is captured. It’s also intriguing to see that the movie downplays, at least a bit, Larsson’s sometimes overly preachy message from the book about modern society’s far-right political corruption. This is an entertainment, after all, not a screed.

I’ll be interested to see how the heck Hollywood remakes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Not only will it have to deal with the knotty problem of all that sexual violence (a subject sure to enrage America’s small but vocal contingent of religious zealots), but Noomi Rapace is a hard act to follow as Lisabeth Salander.

For now, we at least have one tremendous, Swedish version of the story to see in theaters. If you have the chance, and if your stomach is strong enough, don’t miss The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s going to be huge. Mark my words.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed it. So did I up to a point. Nothing here will prepare you for the dire adaptation of the second book. A totally pedestrian effort. Wait and see...