Femme Fatale: on The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

Femme Fatale
By Hugh Lilly

Based on the first book in the “Millennium” trilogy by the late Swedish journalist and sometime novelist Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo tells a sort of Agatha Christie story in retrospect. A 16-year-old girl, Harriet Volger, goes missing and is presumed dead at a 1965 meeting of the Volger company, which included the extended Volger clan—three of whom are still alive and, more importantly, are Nazis. The meeting was at the family’s gigantic mansion, which is on an island—and on the day Harriet wen missing, the only bridge back to the mainland was out, so someone in the house must have killed her.

A journalist with Millennium magazine, awaiting the start of a prison sentence in a libel case for which he was framed, is called in to investigate the murder 45 years after the fact. Though the two don’t meet until almost an hour into the film, he is assisted by a computer hacker—she of the title—who looks remarkably like Tegan Quin (of the Canadian band Tegan & Sara), only with a penchant for facial piercings and body ink—and a father complex.

That it takes so long to foreground the action highlights an issue with the adaptation of Larsson’s source material: namely that the film’s script feels episodic; TV-like. The film’s glossy visual sensibility and the impressive central performance by Michael Nyqvist (As it is in Heaven) are undeniably appealing, but there are fundamental issues with the writing. Action seems segmented—set to be cut around ad breaks—and this continual build-up of events plays out more like TV drama than a feature film.

The film coasts on this odd pacing for the bulk of its two-and-a-half hours, and its last 30 minutes are just as problematic. At film’s end, the script very rapidly glosses over several loose ends, leaves some strands open, and, cliff-hanger-like, hints at a couple more for the forthcoming sequels. Likewise, the cinematography is enjoyable, but only until the two-hour mark; from there it, and the editing/pacing, drops to TV levels.

This material—this film adaptation—would have worked far better cut into three one-hour episodes for a mini-series presentation—or even drawn out into a fully-fledged season, exploring characters, setting and other elements in depth. There’s even the semblance of a notion that it could have even been a neo-Twin Peaks, if it had been handled correctly. The pieces are all there, and the phenomenal success of the novel around the world proves that there’s interest in the story.

The film’s title has been mutilated in translation; the original Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, translates to the perfectly acceptable “Men who hate women”—and it is this disposition that is at the core of the film, both thematically and underlying its narrative. (Such themes are also explored in the other two films in the trilogy, which, by the looks of their trailers, unfortunately seem to have fallen victim to budget cuts.)

Reducing the title to a quick thrill—and implying that the film might focus largely on the computer hacker—was a completely unnecessary move by the distributors, especially since the original title gives an immediate sense of the seedy underbelly explored, unapologetically, in one of the film’s subplots. (Gratuitously, the film occasionally reaches near-Saw levels of bloody masochism, though these scenes are short-lived and serve the overall tone well.)

With David Fincher eyeing a Stateside remake for 2012—reportedly looking at casting Pitt, Depp, Clooney and last year’s break-out star, the Twiggy-esque Carey Mulligan—this might be one of those rare cases where Hollywood glitz, if it’s done by the right people, trumps the European original.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is out now on DVD.

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2 thoughts on “Femme Fatale: on The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

  1. I read the whole trilogy , the first book is truly brilliant, then I watched the movie and I was a bit (a tiny little bit) disappointed, the acting is great but many things are given for granted. I would recommend book first & movie later (especially for this one) otherwise the investigation might come across as unsubstantial

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