Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009 movie)

Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson wrote a series of three mysteries and was at work on a fourth when he died at the age of 44. The title of the first, Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (”Men Who Hate Women”) is apt but literal, so I prefer the one used for the English translation: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That’s because (at least judging from this film adaptation; I haven’t yet read the novel), she overshadows everything else in the story.

It helps that she’s played brilliantly by Sweedish actress Noomi Rapace, who spent seven months preparing for the role and then about a year working on this film and the two sequels.

Rapace’s character, Lisbeth, is a perpetually sullen young woman in her mid-20s who dresses in Goth style and earns a living as a computer hacker for hire. She sometimes hangs out with a long-haired overweight fellow hacker called “Plague” who looks remarkably like a guy I used to work with.

Her employer, a security firm, has lately had her dig up data on an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (pronounced “Bloomkvist,” and played by Michael Nykvist) who was recently convicted of criminal libel against a corporate tycoon. When the client presses Lisbeth for her personal opinion of Blomkvist, she says he was framed.

The client proves to be a lawyer for an elderly, childless billionaire named Henrik Vanger. Satisfied by the report, Vanger asks Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his beloved niece Harriet 40 years earlier, a mystery no one until now has been able to solve. Why Blomvkist? Because he’s proven himself a good investigative journalist, because his three-month prison sentence doesn’t start for half a year and, having no immediate family and no job (he resigned to protect the reputation of the magazine that employed him), he can devote himself entirely to the investigation, and because while he’s largely forgotten it, he actually knew Harriet. When he was a little boy and she was in her teens, she’d helped look after him one summer.

In the meantime Lisbeth has been keeping tabs on Blomkvist via the Internet, and when she realizes he’s looking into an old mystery, she anonymously sends him a tip to explain a baffling clue. Blomkvist manages to figure out who she is and ends up hiring her as his assistant. Together they end up investigate not just Harriet’s case but a whole series of related murders.

At just over 2½ hours, this is a long film, especially for a mystery, but the story is so complex and the characters so involving, with subplots to do with Blomkvist’s survival as a journalist and Lisbeth’s very troubled past and present, that it seems much shorter.

I should mention that some scenes, while not graphic, are intense and violent. This is not Agatha Christie.

I watched it with the Swedish soundtrack and English subtitles, though I sampled the dubbed English version and found it quite good. Curiously, the dubbed English, the English subtitles, and the spoken Swedish were sometimes all different. I only know around a half-dozen words of Swedish (och, tack, blad, ja, nej, dag, and maybe a few others), but Swedish is related to English (“syster” and “dotter” mean “sister” and “daughter,” for example), so I was sometimes able to get the gist. There’s one scene in which the dubbed soundtrack has Blomkvist ask about someone in a hospital, “What are his chances?” The corresponding subtitle reads, “What are his odds?” And the original Swedish sounds like “Prognosen?” which Google translate tells me means “The prognosis?”

(I’m reminded of an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Phyllis told Mary that her husband Lars’s relatives were visiting and all they did while Lars was at work was talk about her in Swedish. Oh, you’re being silly, Mary told her. You don’t speak Swedish, so how in the world could you know what they’re saying? Phyllis replied, “It’s not hard to figure it out when they shake their heads and say, ‘Gud hjälpe Lars!’”)

I don’t think you’d lose much by watching the dubbed version if you can’t stand subtitles, but I found I preferred hearing the original actors. For one thing, there are some phrases spoken in English in the original (English being very widely spoken in Sweden) and you’d miss that in the dubbed version. For example, in one particularly tense moment one Swedish character asks another, “Are you OK?” in English, as though having become suddenly too upset to remember to speak Swedish.

Noomi Rapace’s performance is reason enough to see the movie. Originally concerned that she’d be considered too “girlish” to get the part, Rapace worked out and lost a lot of weight in order to develop a boyish figure appropriate to Lisbeth. Besides looking the part, she’s able to convey with subtlety what’s going on inside Lisbeth’s sullen exterior, so much so that Roger Ebert and others pressed for her to play the role in the American remake. And she might well had been cast, but having spent a year and a half preparing for and playing the character in three movies, she didn’t want to do it again.


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