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Film Review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In 2004, Stieg Larsson, a 50 year old Swedish journalist, died of a heart attack. An avowed Socialist, he had specialized in reporting on right wing extremist groups, set up a foundation to help publicize those groups, and had received credible death threats. In his spare time he wrote fiction, and had just finished a trilogy of crime novels. The first, a long (465 pages) murder mystery, Men Who Hate Women, was published a year after his death, and immediately became a run away best seller in Europe, selling over 12 million copies in 40 countries. It was then published in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and has continued to be a best seller. Next, meet Niels Arden Oplev, a well known (in Europe, not in the US) Danish director, who has done a number of films and TV production over the past 20 years, with many of his films winning various Scandinavian film awards. Very few, if any, have screened on this side of the Atlantic. A few years ago, Oplev was approached to direct a film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but initially rejected it because crime shows, although popular in Denmark, are usually poorly done. However a neighbor insisted that he read the book, which he did, and was hooked. So the combination of a very talented director working with a riveting story has given us a fantastic film, that although long (150 minutes), is compelling, filled with foreboding and tension. There is not a slow moment in this complex yet clearly plotted story.

An investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, has just lost a libel case made against him by an alleged arms dealer, and has to resign from the investigative magazine he helped found. He is fined and sentenced to a short prison term, to begin in six months. Soon after the trial, Mikael is approached by an attorney who says that a wealthy industrialist, Henrik Vanger, wants to hire him to investigate a 40 year old murder. Vanger's favorite niece, Harriet, vanished from an island owned by the Vangers, and her death has haunted him ever since. Although Mikael is fundamentally repelled by the thought of working for the wealthy, the case sounds intriguing and he needs the money. He meets Henrik Vanger, now 80, and Vanger begins to describe his family, all very wealthy, as greedy and depraved beyond comprehension. Three of his brothers and a nephew were Swedish Nazis. One died in the war, and the second brother, Harriet's father, drowned in an accident on the island many years before. Vanger never had children and loved Harriet. Vanger takes Mikael to the attic, and shows him a large wall filled with pressed plants and flowers, each framed. Harriet had always given him one of these on his birthday, but they continued to arrive each year despite her disappearance. He is convinced that someone in the family murdered Harriet, and continues to send him the flowers to torment him. Mikael is given a small cabin on the island to live and work, and begins his investigation.

The second principal character is Lisbeth Salander, a 24 year old computer geek and master hacker, a Goth girl, sullen, aggressive, and filled with rage, who is now a ward of the court after being released from a mental hospital for an as yet undisclosed crime. Her court appointed guardian has just had a stroke, so she is assigned a new guardian, who we soon learn has issues. Their interactions form an important, yet ultimately minor part, in terms of the main story. Lisbeth had followed the libel case that Mikael lost, hacked into his computer, and soon discovers that Mikael is investigating Harriet's murder. She contacts Mikael by sending him an important clue, taken from some of his notes. They meet, he is astonished at her computer skills, and they begin to work together. They are opposites: Mikael, a persistent investigator, but passive, and Lisbeth, an impetuous, dynamic, and mysterious figure with an interesting tattoo. Lisbeth's clue, a brilliant interpretation of names and numbers in Harriet's bible, begins to open the door to real evil. But this is just the beginning of a very exciting, tense story, that continues to twist and turn, becoming even more tension filled, yet believable. There is graphic violence here, but in service of the story. And like any good mystery, there are clues scattered along the way, a few of which you may notice, but most will not be understood until the end. And what a journey and what an end!

The acting is excellent, especially both principal actors, but Noomi Rapace, playing Lisbeth, with her incandescent character, runs away with this film. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is visually gorgeous, the cinematography outstanding, with many beautiful views of the winter Swedish countryside. And dramatic interiors and closeups. The soundtrack is very effective and appropriate, lyric in parts, staccato in others. I loved this film, and it is sure to be a nominee for best foreign film next February. I had just seen and reviewed Mother the night before, and was struck by the similarities and cultural differences between the the two films. The two make an excellent pairing. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just opened at the Embarcadero, and if there is ever a film to see on the big screen, this is it.

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