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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Cold, but with an emotional explosion

Noomi Rapace plays Lisbeth Salander in the films.

3 out of 4 stars


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

  • Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
  • Written by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg
  • Starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace
  • Classification: 18A

A bracing survey course on the mystery genre set in a Scandinavian landscape as cold as a killer's kiss, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a nervy adaptation of the late novelist Stieg Larsson's bestseller, Men Who Hate Women.

The central mystery is a How-did-he-do-it? out of Agatha Christie: Forty years before, a beautiful woman was presumed killed, disappearing from a remote Swedish island without a trace. The man who now wants her found is a creaky old millionaire, a character reminiscent of General Sternwood in The Big Sleep. Speaking of which, the millionaire's detective is a sour loner - Bogart in a ski jacket. There's also a femme fatale. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, the girl with the dragon tattoo is a brunette who would make an archbishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

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But don't go thinking it's a cozy, old-fashioned mystery, because there's lots of dragon, some real scalding fire in director Niels Arden Oplev's thriller. Our femme fatale, Lisbeth, is a jailbird forced to do covert surveillance work by a loathsome parole officer. We have to watch as the big ape brutally rapes her.

The detective (an investigative journalist actually), Mikael Blomqvist, has also been screwed by "The Man." Before taking up the search for the missing girl, he was set up by a rich industrialist. His journalism career is now ruined.

The title of Larsson's novel might have been shortened to "Men Who Hate." By Men, the author, a committed socialist, meant anyone who dared enslave the world, from Nazis to rampaging conglomerates. That political agenda is front and centre here, but the film is blessedly free of proselytizing. We're never told exactly what is going on - who's doing what, to whom, and why. We have to find out ourselves. To that end, the film borrows from the 1966 art-house classic, Blow Up.

As in that Michelangelo Antonioni film, the clue to an unexplained crime is captured by a wandering photographer. Just before the island girl disappeared, she's caught on film turning away in horror from someone in a parade. To discover her tormentor, Mikael and Lisbeth sort through a press photographer's footage taken way back when. Eventually, the sleuths make their own frame-by-frame movie, putting us in the girl's quaking boots.

While much of the subtitled Swedish thriller suggests past detective-film marvels, the movie's most engaging mystery is its own. That would be the frankly sexual romance between Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) and Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace). They're remote characters who don't give a name to their romance for fear of ruining everything. It's an affair you rarely see in movies, and both actors do a splendid job conveying the brief, intense explosion that occurs when loners collide.

All of the above, the stolen romance, double crosses and brute sexual violence, are pulled off with a sure sense of atmosphere. It's getting warmer out. Spring is near. But the winter island Mikael and Lisbeth explore is colder than Pluto. The characters they encounter are more frigid than any corpse. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a chilling film best experienced bundled up in a sweater and scarf.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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