by HELEN GEIB
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish film adapted from the first book in Stieg Larsson’s popular “Millennium Trilogy” of mystery-thrillers starring Mikael Blomqvist (played in the film by Michael Nyqvist) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the eponymous girl with the tattoo. The film was a critical and commercial hit in Europe and on the American arthouse circuit. Only the subtitles make it arthouse fare. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a fine example of another country’s popular cinema, and in subject and style would be right at home at the multiplex. Frankly, I’m surprised Hollywood didn’t get there first.
Henrik Vanger is the elderly patriarch of the extended Vanger family, collective heir to the Vanger Group consortium. Henrik lives alone in a huge house on a rural island that his family seems to own most of. He is still tormented by the unsolved disappearance of his 16-year-old niece Harriet 40 years before. He hires investigative reporter Mikael to make one last attempt to solve the cold case. Mikael’s job won’t be easy. The local police made exhaustive efforts to find Harriet when she first went missing, yet turned up nothing but a few photographs taken on the day she was last seen. Nor is there any lack of motive- Harriet was Henrik’s favorite, or possible culprits- the entire family was gathered on the island for an annual reunion. Looking at the grasping, scheming family he despises, Henrik suspects everyone and no-one.
Mikael moves to the island for the duration of his assignment. He arrives in winter; the dark, frigid, long, snowbound Scandinavian winter. His life is also in winter conditions. He has just been convicted of libeling a prominent businessman (he was set up), and in six months time will be going to jail for three months. His muckraking magazine is in financial trouble because of the scandal. He is divorced. Perhaps worst of all, he hasn’t been able to write a word since the legal ordeal began.
The story takes place over several months, subtly marked in the film by the change of season to early spring. The literal change of season signals the good changes in Mikael’s life: he discovers new evidence in the case that may lead to the truth of Harriet’s disappearance, and he falls in love. The key to both is Lisbeth, who makes herself an invaluable partner in the investigation. (How she ends up working with Mikael on the island is too delightful to spoil.) Henrik has always thought Harriet was killed because she was his presumptive heir, but Mikael and Lisbeth uncover a far more gruesome and sinister explanation: that Harriet had discovered one of the family was a serial killer of women who raped, murdered, and mutilated the bodies of his victims.
When we first meet her, Lisbeth resembles a feral animal. She has a terrible past that Mikael can only guess at and a grim present she also keeps hidden from him. We know more than Mikael at the end; the film reveals something of the horrors she has endured in parallel with Mikael and Lisbeth’s investigation. But while she is not yet able to be forthcoming about her past, she changes greatly by being with him. The changes are, again subtly, marked by shades of difference in her way of speaking, body language, and appearance (clothes, makeup, hair).
Some scenes are very hard to watch. The serial murders are gruesome and a rape is depicted in horrifying detail. The desperation of Lisbeth’s life is only ameliorated by the hope offered by the burgeoning love affair with Mikael. It’s not a comfortable film, but it is engrossing; not just for fans of the Scandinavian school of mystery writers. Anyone who looks for compelling characters and excellent acting will appreciate The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for Mikael and Lisbeth and Nyqvist and Rapace.