Ask about "Swedish movies," and people are apt to think of Ingmar Bergman or similar arty fare (or even respond with a blank look). Spare psychological dramas or morality plays, lots of grays and long silences, narratives that can be ponderous or enigmatic -- certainly, not the stuff of a Saturday-night jaunt to the megaplex.
And yet a couple of Swedish films quite unlike those are on something of an international hot streak. Last year's well-received Let the Right One In was plenty moody, but it was also plenty bloody, which was to be expected when its protagonist was a 12-year-old vampire.
And the country's latest cinematic import, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is a flat-out mystery thriller. It comes trumpeting itself as Sweden's most successful movie ever. Well, sure: Why wouldn't the Swedes want to queue up for unabashed genre entertainment in their own language?
It also can't hurt that the film is an adaptation of Stieg Larsson's mega-selling book, the first of a trilogy of thrillers featuring the same protagonists. The 50-year-old Larsson, an investigative journalist, died suddenly in 2004, leaving behind the three unpublished novels. The other two novels have already been adapted to the big screen in Sweden, using the same cast.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is 600 pages of intricately plotted multiple narratives -- decades of family history, a business investigation, an odd romance and a cold-case murder mystery -- that remarkably all tie together. Even at two-and-a-half hours, the film can't even begin to embrace all this. Those who have read the novel will note that the murder mystery takes priority and even then, there is a fair amount of telescoping. That said, the film, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, is quite faithful (and book-readers will have the edge over newbies on useful character background).
Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a Stockholm-based investigative journalist, who, after losing a libel suit, needs to step away from his publication for some time. Thus, he chooses to take up the curious assignment proffered by industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube).
The elderly Vanger lives on an island -- something of a family compound -- three hours north of Stockholm. Blomkvist will live there for a year, and Vanger will pay him to solve his life's obsession: the mid-1960s disappearance (and presumed murder) of his beloved teen-age niece Harriet during a family get-together. That the crime occurred on an island makes this a classic locked-room mystery, and also strongly suggests that family members were involved.
The Vangers have endured decades of dysfunction, and now co-exist in a state of neighborly hate. Naturally, nobody wants to talk about what might have happened to Harriet. A break comes for Blomkvist when he enlists the services of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), an enigmatic, anti-social, troubled hacker from the big city.
Lisbeth motorcycles to the island, and employing Sweden's famed Internet infrastructure, the two get to cracking the case. There's some old-fashioned investigative legwork, but a journalist and a hacker on the job means a lot of their detecting skills don't lend themselves well to exciting cinema -- rooting through business archives, busting into online bank accounts, looking up things in the Bible. Still, Oplev does what he can to make such scenes visually interesting, and they all move at satisfyingly quick speed.
In all, Girl is a well-produced, well-acted thriller that can hold its own in its mid-Atlantic niche: an American-style thriller that still retains an aura of European exoticism. (Or, more correctly in this case, Nordic moodiness and lots of lovely, albeit lonely scenery.) The narrative's slight edginess derives more from its source material -- particularly in its anti-heroine, Lisbeth -- since the mystery+clues+peril+confessional monologue structure is exactly what audiences demand.
It's a good mystery, the solution of which is pieced together carefully to keep newcomers guessing right up to the end. The truth, when it all unfolds, is fairly grisly -- more in theme than in depiction, though Girl does have a fairly graphic rape scene. (The Swedish title Män som hatar kvinnor translates to "men who hate women.")
Really, besides the language, the major difference that American audiences will notice -- and that I applaud -- is that the actors all look like real people, complete with bad hair, lived-in faces and non-ultra bodies wrapped in pasty skin. Typically, a Hollywood remake directed by David Fincher (Seven) is in the works, so feel free to begin re-casting the story now with gorgeous A-listers. In Swedish, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., April 16. Regent Square