The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sequels are inevitably a dangerous proposition. There is always a temptation to explain too much, both in terms of story and in terms of characters, which is particularly problematic when a particular character's appeal centres on mystery. The second book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, The Girl who Played With Fire suffered from all these problems, but got away with it largely because its characters were so strong. The difficult job of translating it to film succeeds here for the same reason, and thanks to inspired performances from its two leads, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist.

Rapace is Lisbeth, the titular girl. After the events of the first story, she has money; she's been travelling; yet a simple early sequence clearly establishes that she is still deeply unsatisfied. The film doesn't try to explain this too much and is stronger for it. Nyqvist, meanwhile, is Mikael, the journalist who was once her lover, whose life she saved, and with whom she still has a mysterious connection, though it will be a long time before they meet again. Though they don't know it, they are both about to get tangled up in the same conspiracy, something much bigger than either of them. In fact, this is a conspiracy which has shaped Lisbeth's life. Now she finds herself framed for murder, but rather than panic, she decides to deal with some unfinished business. Mikael, meanwhile, is convinced of her innocence and becomes desperate to save her.

Copy picture

Where the ambitious novel suffered from an overabundance of characters and a slow police procedural subplot, setting up material for future books which never happened due to Larsson's untimely death, this slimmed down version efficiently condenses events into a more gripping thriller. Still, it may prove tricky to engage with if you have neither read the book nor seen the first film. Some characters are introduced rather hurriedly and consequently we don't feel as much for them as we should. In the early stages there are so many apparently disconnected things happening that some viewers might find themselves hopelessly confused. Bear with it - in time it does draw its strands together.

What makes it worth sticking with the film through this - and what is likely to keep you gripped, as were all the viewers in the busiest press screening I've been to since The Dark Knight - is its atmosphere. A powerful score by Jacob Groth draws on old Scandinavian classical music traditions to create a haunting melody unlike anything we're used to from Hollywood. It combines perfectly with director Alfredson's noirish visuals. The camerawork is simple, the lighting often deliberately evoking a sense of domesticity in places where ugly things happen, but shadowy figures and Rapace's distant expressions recall the classic thrillers of the Forties. An early love scene between Lisbeth and her friend Miriam (Yasmine Garbi) seems laden with doom despite its innocence. Yet whilst Garbi looks like the classic femme fatale, her role proves different; and Lisbeth is curiously masculinised, perhaps important to what the story is saying about her. She isn't here to play the part of the wronged film heroine seeking a white knight. Just like a wronged man, she'll seek her own kind of justice.

There are hints of a western here, particularly in the marshalling of forces against her, the situations where she seems hopelessly out of her depth. Micke Spreitz is well cast as Ronald, a blond giant who cannot feel pain, though Larsson was at pains to explain the negative side of his condition, perhaps making a joke at the expense of James Bond (who fought a similar villain), and it's a shame that's missing here. Though he remains intriguing, other parts of Ronald's character are underdeveloped largely because the book relied so much on internal monologue. But it is here that it really scores.

If Larsson has a major weakness, it's that he tells rather than shows. Alfredson is a much subtler operator. Brief glances, a smile here, a furrowing of the eyebrows there, are all we need to know to understand the strength of these characters' feelings, for all Lisbeth's remoteness. Similarly, Mikael's relationship with his married colleague is conveyed through brief comments and knowing looks, with their only bedroom scene more companionable than erotic. This leaves more room to focus on the passions that drive each of them and to draw the viewer in to a similar place, if only with the intent of solving the central mystery.

Far less conventional than the first film, and less accessible with it, The Girl Who Played With Fire is nevertheless strangely compelling. There's always a sense of something more going on than events themselves reveal. In this way it comes close to expressing the outrage of its central characters at an endemic misogyny manifested in every aspect of society, from the sex trafficking case Mikael is working on to the secrets of Lisbeth's childhood. Though this is addressed less directly now, its presence influences everything. The film may never quite burst into flame, but it's certainly turning up the heat.

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2010
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The girl with the dragon tattoo finds herself framed for murder as a historic conspiracy faces possible exposure.
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Director: Daniel Alfredson

Writer: Jonas Frykberg, based on the book by Stieg Larsson.

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Micke Spreitz, Georgi Staykov, Yasmine Garbi, Paolo Roberto, Sofia Ledarp, Peter Andersson

Year: 2009

Runtime: 129 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Sweden, Denmark, Germany

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