Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Meet Lisbeth Salander: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It seems like a cruel twist of fate that Stieg Larsson’s international bestselling success only came posthumously. Heightening the irony, the ardent Trotskyite’s literary estate has been at the center of protracted legal and media controversies. Yet a far more sinister family drama lies at the heart of Niels Arden Oplev’s big screen adaptation of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which opens Friday in select cities.

Lisbeth Salander is a difficult woman to get to know. However, the hacker for hire can find out all there is to know about anyone else—for a price, of course. Her latest target she actually finds sort of interesting: Mikael Blomkvist, a leftist journalist about to serve a prison sentence for slandering a controversial businessman. Based on Salander’s vetting, Blomkvist has been hired by retired industrialist Henrik Vanger to solve the decades old disappearance of his niece Harriet during what little liberty he has remaining.

Still grieving the loss of his favorite niece, the old Vanger finds little comfort from the rest of his ghoulish family, many of whom were (and continue to be) open Nazi sympathizers. With a large, ugly family full of suspects to check out, Blomkvist has his work cut out for him, but he finds an unlikely ally when Salander reaches out to him.

Perhaps the most internationally prominent female character in Swedish literature since Pippi Longstocking, casting Salander was a tricky business. However, Noomi Rapace perfectly personifies the goth hacker, capturing both her allure and her creepiness. Though a mysterious figure, Rapace effectively humanizes her, which makes some graphic scenes involving her abusive parole officer difficult viewing. Still, her scenes are far and away the most compelling of the film.

The Vangers’ dark family history and the pattern of ritual killings Blomkvist and Salander uncover form a fantastic set-up, but Dragon falters during the follow-through. The film seems fresh and bold when candidly delving into the legacy of not-so neutral Sweden's support for Hitler’s National Socialism, but the plot ultimately descends into rather conventional thriller devices.

Michael Nyqvist has an appealing Swedish Harrison Ford middle-aged hero quality as Blomkvist, the libelous lefty. In a surprisingly sympathetic role (given Larsson’s politics), Sven-Bertil Taube also portrays the patriarch industrialist with memorable dignity and compassion. However, the film is dominated by Rapace’s riveting screen presence as Salander.

Dragon’s two and a half hour running time is more than a bit long, particularly since it is really a handful of sequences that define the film. Fortunately though, it is not fatally submerged in its author’s politics, retaining his leftism essentially as ornamental window trappings. Not for the overly sensitive, Dragon is a good but not great thriller. It opens in New York this Friday (3/19) at the Sunshine, Lincoln Plaza, and Chelsea Cinemas.