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|Cinema Signal: A great film from great source material.|
First there was the book; then there were two more to complete the trilogy that came from the literary hand of Swedish author Steig Larrson; then there was the excellent movie made by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo;" and now there's this remake of it for American audiences. I don't mean to bore you with this recap but it is an extraordinary journey for a work of literary art to take and well worth keeping in mind for what it tells us about Larsson's achievement.
Both pictures do, smashingly well, and on a purely artistic level there need not have been a remake. But the justification for it isn't purely artistic. What producer Scott Rudin, director David Fincher and others saw in the remarkable material was a potential that couldn't be fulfilled with a foreign film, however well made and commercially successful and this story of governmental abuse, courage in the face of terrible odds, a serial killer and the cleansing effect of personal rage screamed for the widest possible audience. Subtitles and unfamiliar casts go just so far in the U.S. and western markets.
That part of the story is in the numbers. Oplev's version took in a little over a hundred million worldwide, with only ten of that in the U.S. That total is roughly the budget for the Fincher production, not including the advertising budget that might be as much.
The challenge for the writer and/or director lies in how well they represent Lisbeth Salander, to me, one of the great central characters in mystery fiction. The success of a movie translation is almost wholly dependent on capturing the full spectrum of her attributes which, for the most part, are stunning and captivating.
Because she was ruled legally incompetent by Swedish authorities for reasons to be revealed in "The Girl Who Played With Fire," the second book in Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, she was made the childhood victim of a heinous state institution and sadistic overseers calling themselves "doctors." You couldn't tell their treatments from their tortures.
Once freed from their grasp with a well developed hostility toward men and an abiding devotion to punishing any of them who abuse women, she was assigned a legal guardian, Holger Palmgren (Bengt C.W. Carlsson), a kindly older man who understood her intellectual gifts and truly cared for her as he submitted monthly reports to the government agency, lauding her progress in assimilating into society. This happy arrangement goes sour when Palgren suffers a heart attack and is replaced by Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), another degenerate in her life with control over her. This time, however, she switches roles with her torturer and wreaks swift justice. You mess with this babe at your peril.
Given her off-the-charts IQ and photographic memory, her "cracker hacker" credentials, martial arts training and expertise in disguise, the now 24-year old possesses mastery of computers and programming languages that lead her to invaluable contacts in Stockholm's hacker community and a well-paying job with the exacting Milton Security company.
This is a firm that business and political leaders come to for dossiers on people of particular interest, sometimes enemies, sometimes someone they are vetting for a possible job, political appointment or, as in the current case, a person with the right qualities to solve a family mystery -- a very wealthy family and a missing person mystery. In consideration of the importance of the client, retired industrialist Henrik Vanger of the Vanger Corporation, Milton CEO Dragan Armansky assigns his best researcher to the job -- Ms Salander!
The person Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer,"Beginners") wants a background check on is none less that someone who has been in the news over a case of libel. Not a detective in the normal sense, but an investigative journalist who has proven his skill and mindset in exposing hidden truths about powerful, corrupt people for his monthly magazine Millenium, He is Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, ("Downloading Nancy," "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocal"), journalist, publisher, part-owner.
When Dirch Frode (Ingvar Hirdwall), Henrik Vanger's lawyer and front man, sees the results of Lisbeth's workup on Blomkvist, he can hardly believe the comprehensive detail the report goes into. He wants to meet Salander, something she and Armansky have never permitted. Shortly thereafter, Vanger is interviewing Blomkvist in his mansion on the family compound on Hedeby Island in Hedestad and relating the mystery of his beloved niece Harriet's disappearance forty years ago. The mystery (which, because it took place on an island, Larsson considered a "locked-room mystery") has only been perpetuated with the framed pressed flowers that have been sent to him anonymously every year on his birthday for thirty six of them.
Henrik wants Blomqvist to do an exhaustive "once-and-for-all" investigation through all the clues and known facts on the possibility that the crusading journalist is the most likely to find something neither the police nor anyone else has, if such a thing exists.
Henrik's timing is exquisite. Blomkvist has just lost his libel case to Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg), a corrupt billionaire financier who has been trying to close Milennium, and Blomkvist, down for years -- at one point even trying to buy it. Now, as Blomkvist faces a penalty of 600,000 Swedish kroner (around $87,000 American) and some prison time, Henrik's offer of substantial money and evidence against Wennerstrom that will dissolve the libel conviction and destroy the man behind it, Blomkvist accepts the job, under cover of doing a family "memoire" for which he will need to interview each member of the guarded clan. We meet Henrik's niece Cecilia, her sister Anita, their brother Birger, Harriet's brother and current CEO of the Vanger Corporation, Martin Vanger.
Given a house of his own on the island, with complete and free access to all documents pertaining to Harriet's disappearance, he starts with the last known photos of her at a public event. In the course of working through the files, Blomkvist finds Lisbeth's workup on him (for Vanger) and realizes that the only way she can have learned certain things no one but he has ever known is by cracking into his computer system. Though disturbed by the shocking intrusion, he can't deny that a person with such capabilitites would make for a very valuable resource and he asks her to join him on his mission.
At first hesitant, she agrees to help. Their collaboration goes well. Blomkvist meets her on intellectual grounds and impresses her when he makes a discovery that is exceptionally perceptive. Mutual respect leads to an emotional connection and trust. Lisbeth takes the initiative in expressing it, sexually. Acting on impulse, she ignores the fact that her intended lover is still very much involved with Erika Berger (Robin Wright, "Moneyball"), his partner on the magazine, and has been for years. When the fact is thrown in her face one night, the feeling of rejection switches on a return to hostility toward men. But, as the subsequent parts of her story develope, she is going to find out how important Mikael is... to her life.
As well as Fincher ("The Social Network," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and screenwriter Steven Zallian's ("Moneyball") cover the essential threads of multiple story lines, there is, as there must be, an abbreviation of the written work. The book tells us why Lisbeth was committed to the institution for being anti-social. It gives us a hint of critical factors like her politically connected psychopathic sadist of a father and his association with the secret cabal operating within but independently of the government. But despite what isn't included in the movie, taken on its own terms as a movie, it's a powerhouse Hollywood event and a sure hit with arthouse patrons. Just watch for the Oscar nominations and, perhaps, dominance at the award ceremony.
Of great interest to those who were put under the Lisbeth Salander spell by Noomi Rapace ("Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows") in Orlev's film is how well relative newcomer Rooney Mara (younger sister of actress Kate Mara of "Brokeback Mountain") compares in the role. Let me just say that all requirements have been met and, as with Rapace, you can't take your eyes off her as she portrays the defiant genius who will take s___ from no one. The emotional ride that Lisbeth takes us on is a star-making journey and Mara confirms it.
Also germane to the central relationship is the portrayal of Blomkvist, a plodding character whose acumen is expressed in his writing more than in his laissez faire demeanor -- a portrait that wouldn't seem to be in Daniel Craig's portfolio. By dialing back his action hero energy and charisma, Craig avoids taking a controlling role with his super-sensitive colleague and allows her the space to transition toward an emotional connection with someone, and take a stride toward social normality. The unprovocative Blomkvist seems to have come more naturally to Michael Nyqvist in Oplev's version.
Technical credits are uniformly excellent with special praise going to hair, makeup and wardrobe departments, giving us a visual realization of the spiky central figure we imagined when reading the books. Thanks to them for the black leathers, the shiny piercings and the slow dissolve toward convention and natural beauty. Which takes nothing away from the great work of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Donald Graham Burt with the grey modality of Sweden's northern climes.
Larsson made literary history and spawned a cottage industry with his framing of a triple-headed saga of righting wrongs (Lisbeth vs. the Swedish establishment, Harriet's disappearance, Blomqvist vs Wennerstrom). Vengeance is the ace card in this rough game of acquiring justice in a cloaked system with degenerates at every turn, and it's a heavyweight component of the Trilogy's impact no matter the medium used for its telling. Fincher, a perfectionist, has made it faithfully and dynamically, satisfying the demands of attentive, discerning fans. All things considered and (I'd like to think) as one of them, I'm relieved that he has done it justice for the wider audience he will reach with his film version of a singular piece of literary art.
For more reviews on the Millennium Trilogy: