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The Girl Who Played With Fire

Movie Review

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If only the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel were as incendiary as its title suggests. But this one is mainly for hard-core Lisbeth Salander fans.

“And who is Lisbeth Salander?” the uninitiated ask. (Given that deceased author Larsson’s thriller trilogy has been burning up the American bestseller charts since the first film was released here last spring, there may not be many uninitiated left.) She’s a feminist avenger. Or a male fantasy. Or both. With her cold eyes, pierced nose and childlike physique, her fondness for black garments, her dark past and her prodigious anger, Lisbeth seems to hit a sweet spot for mystery fans with latent goth or cyberpunk tendencies. Yes, she’s also a superb hacker. And she has a photographic memory. And self-defense skills. Just to mix things up, she’s bisexual.

In short, Salander is a superheroine for people who wouldn’t dream of reading comic books. She doesn’t have many shadings. But actress Noomi Rapace is such an iconic, slit-eyed presence that it’s unfortunate she rescinded herself from the upcoming English-language film versions of the novels, leaving director David Fincher to audition Hollywood actresses who seem too nice and conventionally nubile for the role.

Salander does not do nubile. The problem is, in this second Swedish adaptation, helmed by director Daniel Alfredson, she doesn’t do mystery, either.

In early scenes, Salander returns to Stockholm, her cash-flow problems solved, and attempts to settle her affairs with the seedy lawyer Bjurman (Peter Andersson), on whom she inflicted her special brand of vengeance in the first film. She visits one former lover (Yasmine Garbi) but steers clear of another — our hero, the menschy journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). Blomkvist, meanwhile, struggles with the logistics of publishing a young freelancer’s exposé of human trafficking, which implicates prominent government officials.

As soon as the wide-eyed boy reporter and his equally idealistic girlfriend are introduced, it’s clear they’re doomed. When Salander is framed for their two murders — and a key third one — it’s also pretty clear who really done it. While the plot has a couple of shockers, none concerns the killer’s identity.

The film soon becomes a slog of talky scenes interrupted by occasional chases and tortures, drawing its narrative momentum from Salander’s quest to annihilate her persecutors and Blomkvist’s to protect her. While suspicious characters proliferate, the big, provocative topics of human trafficking and government corruption recede into the background.

Some of Alfredson’s choices are mystifying. It’s hard to say why the scene where a defense official (Ralph Carlsson) details the origins of a mysterious gangster has to be so long, since most of his exposition takes us nowhere. Conversely, if Salander felt empathy for the victims of trafficking in the novel, you wouldn’t know it from this version, where those victims and their stories are just text flitting on her laptop screen.

The theme that does come through — and how — is the same one that dominated The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: bad dads. Not cold-and-distant dads or deadbeat dads or philandering Don Draper dads, but psychotic dads. Dads who treat the mothers of their children like whores and their children like chattel. Dads who exhibit a lack of respect for blood ties and taboos seldom seen in Western literature since the brutal legends of the ancient Norse.

Readers of the trilogy no doubt have a better sense than I do of where this chilling fixation of Larsson’s comes from. Perhaps he’s trying to unearth the grimy Viking subconscious of enlightened modern Sweden.

For some viewers, seeing a young woman stand up against an unspeakably evil patriarchy is sure to be cathartic. (An earlier title Larsson gave the novel translates as The Girl Who Dreamed of a Gasoline Can and a Match.) But others may wonder: Where is the context? Where is the rest of the story? Where are the characters with moral nuances and conflicts? Most importantly, where is the suspense?

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