Cross-posted at Bitch Flicks.
I shared with you all last week that I’ve been utterly consumed by Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s gripping Millennium Trilogy (I’ll be reading the third book soon…so excited!). I loved the first film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, entranced by the burning intensity of the controversial heroine, Lisbeth Salander. So I eagerly went to see the second film in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, when it opened last Friday.
Picking up one year after the first film ends, a young journalist and a doctoral student are researching the sex trafficking trade in Sweden. Publisher and journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s magazine Millennium decides to publish the controversial work, essentially exposing the identities of the men who purchased young women for sex. As they are about to go to print with the story, three violent murders are committed. When the police suspect brilliant hacker Lisbeth Salander’s involvement, Blomkvist is determined to clear her name. But Salander plots her own vengeful agenda against her enemies, plunging the audience even deeper into the mysterious heroine’s troubled and painful past.
I enjoyed the gritty, tense film. With a different screenwriter and director at the helm, the movie surprisingly retains the same mood as the first film yet not the same depth. Director Daniel Alfredson provides some visually stunning camera shots. The ominous and eerie score perfectly sets the suspenseful tone. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t live up to the riveting novel. So much of what I loved about the book is missing as an exorbitant amount of the plot and dialogue are cut from the movie.
The beauty of Larsson’s books lies in his fusion of societal analysis with compelling characters and gripping suspenseful plots. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, he focuses his commentary on human trafficking, mental health care, espionage, LGBT discrimination and domestic violence. Regarding the central theme of trafficking in the book, the young journalist Dag Svensson goes into great detail about the johns and researcher Mia Bergman provides the point of views of the women trafficked as she relays their harrowing tales. According to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book Half the Sky, 3 million women and girls are forced into prostitution, as many traffickers coerce, beat and rape women into submission. As with sexual assault in the first novel, Larsson gives you a sense of the horrors these women face. But this and other vital themes are completely glossed over in the film.
Part of what makes the book so captivating is that it’s a whodunit; you feel as if you’ve stepped into an episode of Law and Order: SVU (I kept waiting for Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni to leap out and bust the perps). The police investigation into the murders comprises a huge component of the story. The plot twists and turns and you don’t know the identity of the killer or killers. Salander’s involvement is ambiguous, as the book doesn’t follow her whereabouts for roughly 100 pages following the murders. But the film basically tells you right up front, forgoing most of the mystery.
By its end, the movie (and book too) spirals into a violent frenzy, reminiscent of a slasher film with SPOILER ALERT!! characters wielding axes and chainsaws, along with numerous dead bodies buried outside a warehouse and someone buried alive. Ending on a cliff hanger, it leaves us yearning to know the characters’ fate.
Anything lacking in the film, is made up for by the outstanding performances of the two powerful leads. While he gave a solid performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I kept yearning for more emotion from actor Michael Nyqvist as the impassioned journalist Mikael Blomkvist. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, he delivers, bringing Blomkvist’s obstinate and obsessive compulsion to solve the murders to life. Devoted to Salander, his former research partner and lover, Blomkvist races to piece together the puzzle of the murders. Nyqvist captures the essence of Blomkvist’s stubborn optimism and charisma.
But the spotlight still belongs to actor Noomi Rapace. While she blew me (and numerous other critics) away with her performance in the first film, I am even more impressed with Rapace as the tattooed researcher Lisbeth Salander this time around. She stepped into the role through physical training, 7 facial piercings and obtaining her motorcycle license. Yet she also emotionally transformed herself. In an interview, Rapace said that she would sit alone, away from the cast and crew, channeling Salander’s anger. Rapace effortlessly evokes Salander’s shrewd intellect, stubbornness and wrath. We also get to see Salander’s tenderness in her scenes with her trusted former guardian Holmer Palmgren and her lover Miriam “Mimmi” Wu. She doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, a challenge for an actor, yet Rapace lets us into the wounded character’s world through her subtle yet stellar portrayal.
Lisbeth Salander has generated an enormous amount of press. It’s unusual to see a female character exude such ferocity. Usually when we see violence from women in films, they are subordinate to a male counterpart or lover, re-articulating gendered stereotypes. But not Lisbeth. An unlikely feminist, she despises misogyny, yearning for fair and equal treatment of women. Salander refuses to be a victim after her own sexual assault. Despite her pained and troubled childhood, she never wallows in self-pity. Salander follows her own moral code, wreaking vengeance on those who have abused her with little regard to the law. She takes responsibility and accepts the consequences of her actions. Some may argue that she’s not feminine enough, acting like a male disguised in a female form. But I think that ignores what makes Salander so refreshing. Self-reliant and clever, she’s a resilient survivor, never backing down from a fight. A fascinating and fearless character, she is defined neither by her gender nor her fluid sexuality.
While not living up to the book or the first film, it’s still worthwhile to watch for the phenomenal performances by Rapace and Nyqvist. Each of them truly embodies their alter egos. Rapace in particular mesmerizes with a smoldering strength. I cannot wait to see (and read) what happens next.