The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has little in common with the juggernaut of Twilight, except for two coincidences: both were surprise publishing successes, hitting gushers in previously untapped markets (an international taste for Swedish crime fiction and an insatiable desire for teen vampires); and each brought together an unusual couple in an inventive first novel, only to split them up in a sequel which puts the woman in enormous peril. And like the Twilight series, as the books were adapted into films, the second movie got a different director. But it’s here that any similarity with the swooning, moody undead ends. The Girl Who Played With Fire is very much alive, and even more astringent and gritty than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
A year after they cracked the Harriet Vanger case and went their separate ways, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) again find their lives intertwined, through circumstance and proclivity. New screenwriter Jonas Frykberg and director Daniel Alfredson have streamlined Larsson’s twisty second book into an effective (if more conventional) crime drama. While they can’t recapture the chemistry that made Tattoo so distinctive, they put Salander and Blomkvist on parallel tracks and race them like bullet trains to a stunning head-on collision that reaffirms this eccentric duo’s tenacity and devotion. As he steadily propels the story forward, Alfredson keeps the pacing deliberate and measured, very much in keeping with Larsson’s methodical approach.
Having risen from the ashes of professional disgrace, and back in his milieu as a star investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist is a very different man in The Girl Who Played With Fire. Stubborn and self-righteous, even bullying, there’s very little he won’t do when he thinks he’s right, which is most of the time. The insufferable qualities Salander once saw in him have come to the forefront since he returned to Millennium magazine, but little could she realize how much Blomkvist’s intelligent belligerence will benefit her. Lisbeth Salander is also different. The hacker extraordinaire is rich and adrift, with little interest in Stockholm outside of monitering her rapist and government-appointed guardian, Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson).
Both Blomkvist and Salander have chosen to reignite old flames: Mikael returns to the familiar comfort of his decades long affair with Millennium‘s married publisher, Erika Berger (Lena Endre), while Lisbeth reconnects with former lover Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi) in an intimate scene that Alfredson makes as much about sex as breaking through the defensive woman’s tough exterior. Miriam’s belated birthday present to Lisbeth – a vintage cigarette case for the chain-smoker – becomes a potent visual symbol for a relationship that feels deeper and more vital onscreen than in the book. Larsson makes Salander so obsessed with maintaining her independence that she seems unable to have any kind of meaningful emotional connection.
Frykberg sets up several instances where cracks appear on Lisbeth Salander’s impenetrable façade, and Noomi Rapace incorporates these nuances into her hard-edged performance. As she feeds a frail Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson), her former guardian who’s confined to a rest home after a stroke, there is the tenderness of a daughter. Realizing that the stalwart Miriam almost died because of their association, she makes a secret visit to her hospital bed as a kind of penance. Lisbeth is just as strong as before – a waif who can overwhelm two beefy members of a biker gang sent to assassinate her – but this new Salander is allowed moments of vulnerability within her overwhelming rage to survive.
That willingness to always fight back no matter what the odds, so ingrained into Lisbeth at a young age, will come in handy as the events of The Girl Who Played With Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden) click into place. Freelance journalist Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin) is working at Millennium on a major sex trafficking story, utilizing research that his girlfriend Mia Bergman (Jennie Silfverjhelm) used for her graduate thesis. Mia befriended a group of women who immigrated to Sweden only to find themselves virtual prisoners forced to service prominent men, and Dag is exposing the prostitution system as well as the johns. It’s exactly the kind of hot-button story Millennium thrives on, and all hands are on deck for a big issue.
But things shift quickly: one evening, Blomkvist finds Dag and Mia shot dead in their apartment, and the murder weapon has only one set of fingerprints, those of Lisbeth Salander. Estranged from Mikael, and wary of authority figures of any kind, Salander goes underground, preferring her own personal investigation to anything the police might turn up. When the body of Bjurman is discovered, killed with the same gun, she becomes Sweden’s most wanted. An indignant Blomkvist takes a different tactic, loudly asserting Lisbeth’s innocence to everyone in earshot, including the investigator in charge of this tangled case, Jan Bublanski (Johan Kylén). With the doggedness of a bloodhound on a ripe scent, Mikael Blomkvist quickly sniffs out a conspiracy against his antisocial former partner.
The Girl Who Played With Fire has the brisk efficiency of well-made television movie: director Daniel Alfredson has several award-winners and commercial successes at the Swedish box office (Wolf,Tic Tac), along with extensive small screen experience. The way he frames the city of Stockholm (in an aspect ratio that ideally fits TVs, versus the cinematic widescreen of Dragon Tattoo) and uses storytelling devices familiar to anyone who watches detective shows (the slow release of information that keeps the audience a step ahead of the characters) puts Larsson’s dense, meandering novel into a familiar framework. He’s especially adept at incorporating the wild cards of that narrative, like the looming presence of Ronald Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz).
Alternately violent and impassive, Niedermann drives much of the action with a benign detachment. Perhaps it’s because he feels no pain: a genetic disorder makes him oblivious to hurtful sensations. When the towering Niedermann comes up against the skills of prizefighter Paolo Roberto (the celebrity boxer turned politician plays himself), he might have been undone by technique, but brute force and no feeling is a powerful combination. Alfredson makes Niedermann a monster in plain sight: a Nordic powerhouse whose outward passivity isn’t menacing until his huge hands are pulling the life from a helpless, struggling victim, his blank eyes seemingly watching innocuous events happening at a great distance.
The Girl Who Played With Fire might have focused solely on the abuse suffered by Lisbeth Salander, and Daniel Alfredson does allow glimpses into Bjurman’s attack and her brutal childhood confinement in a psychiatric institution. But the filmmakers take their cues from Lisbeth’s attitude instead of her experience, and opt to look forward rather than dwelling on the past. As much as Lisbeth wants to keep her life to herself, complete privacy means that a massive injustice will go unexposed. She may never acknowledge it, but Salander has more in common with the idealistic Blomkvist than she cares to imagine. Both sacrifice themselves to unearth a long-buried truth, one dying a little in the process.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on August 27, 2010 by Music Box Films
The Girl Who Played with Fire is available on Netflix