Striking while the Girl is hot, the producers of Stieg Larrson’s Millennium film adaptations are churning out the Swedish language versions in a hell of a hurry. Understandable, since the English language remakes are about to begin shooting, undoubtedly to be followed by the remake of the remake. Niels Arden Oplev crafted a moody piece that was more than atmospheric; the atmosphere itself suggested a deeper agenda. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo peeked inside a vast world of secrets – lurid and distasteful secrets that stretched out through impassive forests from old history to more contemporary crimes. Political and religious wounds opened by a deep hatred towards women gave the film a sinister pallor comparable to a Catholic church. The bad guys were caught, but you were given the feeling such victories were hollow as others were waiting to take their place. What better way to deal with such abscesses than Millennium – the magazine of Mikael Blomkvist? Opening such wounds would not be pleasant, but necessary to exorcise the demons of Sweden’s sordid history (though the subject matter could apply to any nation). Oplev has been offloaded in favor of Daniel Alfredson, surely the Brett Ratner of Sweden. There is no real explanation, though I suspect it was to blast out the other two books in haste, and without that ‘skill’ thing to slow down the machine. The latest film lacks polish, with none of the stunning photography that created a place in time and a context for the research of the two leads in the first film. It lacks a relationship between Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, as they do not see each other until the strangely truncated ending. And it seems to go through the motions, lacking enough explanation to connect the dots and make sense of it all. Still, Noomi Rapace manages to hold the thing together, making the whole affair just good enough.
Whereas Dragon Tattoo examined the depraved history of a wealthy family tied together by political and religious extremism and business, the target of The Girl Who Played With Fire is Lisbeth Salander herself. Not content to hide in the tropics forever, she returns to the lawyer who acted as her guardian and who had a healthy appetite for rape. He was not keeping up his end of the bargain, submitting reports to guarantee her independence and possibly trying to cover up his tattoo. Maybe this was necessary for her legal freedom, but more importantly she wanted to show him who held the power in the relationship. Her character is one of complicated sexuality, brilliant research skills, and a long history of being victimized by brutality and sexual violence. She is a creature of great privacy, existing alone and having value for no human relationships. Connections are fine, but no real people in her life. One thing Fire does well is bring home the central danger in true independence. Lisbeth is framed for murder, and all of her skills make her no less alone in the world. On the other side of the mirror is Mikael Blomkvist, in control of Millennium magazine, and an effective conduit for the rest of the world. She must clear her name, and he can make that possible. Unfortunately, the story of how the real murderers are revealed is so confusing that it is never made clear how this will be done.
The Girl Who Played With Fire delves deeper into Lisbeth’s background, and the malignant relationship with her father. We are aware of her attempt to incinerate him. In the aftermath, however, she is institutionalized and subjected to further abuse, while her father is given assistance by the government for complicated reasons. The gist is, the woman is marginalized and forgotten, while the sins of the man are allowed to fester thanks to his superior connections. A subplot is set up (and goes nowhere) where a journalist and his girlfriend are working to publish an article on sex slavery and trafficking of women from Eastern Europe to points west, including Sweden. The merchants are allowed to operate with the assistance of police, state security, and legislators who craft weak laws to allow them breathing room. This is a real issue; the International Labor Organization noted in a 2009 report that about 12.3 million people live in a legal state of slavery, 1.4 million of whom are sex slaves. Before this is allowed to become interesting, a left turn brings us back to the central characters, which was a disappointingly narrow focus. Why set up a criminal enterprise about misogyny on a global scale and retreat to a tale of personal wrong and revenge?
This theme is continued as Lisbeth Salander is framed for murder and figures from her past work together with the media and convenient experts to paint her as a violent whore. The deck is stacked heavily against her, and against women in general by extension. This becomes a bit repetitive as the point is driven home with a sledgehammer sensibility. Beyond this theme is the idea that official bodies are those best able to deliver systematic abuses as the proxy of monied interests. This worldview borders on anarchic, as though a lack of governmental and regulatory structures would free women from violence. This may not have been the aim, but one is left to wonder what the long view of the Millennium series would have been had Stieg Larsson survived to complete his 10-book series. There is no safe place in this world, as both private business and public government are run by men who view women with something between ambivalence and objectifying anger. Even solitude is dangerous, and Lisbeth is as victimized as much by her overconfidence in her ability to resolve the story threads alone as by every man in sight. The odd man out is Blomkvist, who is given little to do but dig for the truth, and eventually clear Salander’s name in the end. He is ready to believe in her, but not quite ready to get dirty on her behalf.
In the end, this film disappoints, but not for lack of effort by Rapace and Nykvist. They still carry an enormous presence, but they are betrayed by a sloppy script and director Alfredson’s lack of ability behind the camera. This trend is likely to continue for the closing film of the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. It is hard not to feel a sense of loss for what could have been, but the cinema is an industry first and foremost, and cutting corners to the detriment of art is the rule rather than the exception.