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Film Reviews

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Reviewed
Dean Sobers , March 15th, 2010 13:30

Time and time again, the film industry staggers in front of its collective audience like a removals man fumbling his grip on a treasured vase. Or - to put it another way - adaptations are a bitch, or have at least shown themselves to be so recently. It's clearly no easy chore carting beloved works from other media to the big screen, especially when there's an army of bloggers and fans ready to nit-pick it to death. This is of course not to dismiss the fact that many of our most celebrated films are adaptations (Psycho, for instance), but there's an increasingly populous middle-ground inhabited by films that seem unbreakably tethered to their sources, and are therefore judged on how well the transition to the big screen is executed.

Now put down your annotated copy of Watchmen for the moment. Plenty of these films aren't inherently bad, but their fortunes have been stifled almost to point of sabotage by the critic's veneration of what they're adapting, or simply by the prohibitive shadow cast by the source material. Last year's State of Play is one case in point. An intelligent, serviceable thriller with significant highlights, but operating in the glare of its mesmerizing forerunner one can't help but ask the unflattering question 'what need - other than financial - generated this?' The Road is another example. Although not a movie masterwork, it certainly didn't deserve being subjected to lengthy academic discussions of Cormack McCarthy's prose style.

From the opening scenes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seemed saddled with similar difficulties. Speaking about his adaptation, director Niels Arden Oplev has claimed that his intention was for "all the small clues and details in [Stieg] Larsson’s book to be there." Consequently, the pained grunts of the writers were virtually audible behind expositional litanies masquerading as news clips or tearful goodbyes, the scribes working furiously to set in motion all the threads in the complex plot while the uninitiated in the audience mentally sort through which details should be memorized in order to keep up with the film. So a disgraced ex-journalist (Michael Nyqvist) has been commissioned to Miss Marple his way to the bottom of a forty year-old missing persons case on a secluded island. It also seems apparent that the troubled and cagey computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) will somehow become important - she is on the film's posters after all. The audience is tantalised with haunting black and white photographs, encoded diaries, hints of sinister organisations, and anonymously delivered flowers. So far so...Jonathan Creek? With the plot pulling in so many directions, it at first feels slightly aimless. It may well be that we are witnessing fleeting glimpses of Larsson's rich, complex characters - but the film flits about with such a sense of panic that these characters had little more to them than thriller cliches.

Thankfully, once all the unpacking is over, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo suddenly hits its stride and establishes itself as an engrossing, pacey thriller. Nyquist and Rapace made a solid sleuthing pair, served by a fantastic ensemble of bit players. It's not a perfect film, but if there's one telling achievement it's that approximately twenty minutes shy of the lengthy 153 minute running time, a character warns: "We're not finished yet" - and this didn't inspire mass sighs from the audience.

In itself, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo proves an interesting demonstration of the highs and lows of that often poisoned adaptation chalice. As with so many examples of the form, it makes a point of indicating the limitations of film - or at least how clumsy and self-apologetic film can be when importing literary content in bulk. Fortunately, this is improved upon when the film suddenly quits worrying and becomes a exemplary lesson in how to craft suspenseful cinema.

The prospect of its adapted sequels (already in the can, according to Variety) is not unenticing. Whether these films will ever be more than glorified press material for Larsson's multi-million-selling novels is an open question. And whether or not it fumbles - or indeed smashes - treasured elements of the source novel is a debate for the fans; and the fans will no doubt be engaged in a far more scrupulous investigation than the film's protagonists' mount on the secluded island.