Wednesday 24 March 2010

Men Who Hate Women

Scenes of snow, sea and forests float through my mind. Good and evil, horror and safety, shadows of history and intriguing, compelling characters. Landscape and plot in black and white, but grey shades too, dreamy and resonant: a hugely pleasurable couple of hours in the cinema, which isn't something I have too often these days.

I'd been waiting eagerly for the release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the film of Volume 1 of Stieg Larsson's wonderful Millenium Trilogy (everyone should read the novels - an absolute must for our times!) about radical journalist Mikael Blomqvist and angry  hacker Lisbeth Salander crusading against horrific crimes of past and present that lurk in Sweden's lovely countryside, cosy small towns and hi-tech, cosmopolitan cities. Like all the trilogy's many fans, I expect, I waited with trepidation too. The 'film of the book' most often disappoints, for obvious reasons: you've already cast and directed this film in your head. There were other reasons too, in this case, for trepidation: the books' gut feminism and anti-capitalism, the super-unconventional heroine, the long digressions scattered through the main, fast-paced narrative of these very long books (digressions not appreciated by all readers, but much appreciated by me).  A huge risk, surely, that the films (two sequels coming soon) would lose or fatally compromise all these, to focus only on pace, special effects and the extreme violence which is also in the novels.

My hope of something better lay in the fact that the films were being made in Sweden (I hold out a lot less hope for the promised Hollywood remakes). As it  happens, Sweden is not for me an unknown land of dark, dramatic beauty like Norway. I've long had Swedish friends, been a few times to that country for work and holidays, found much to like and admire in the open landscapes and peaceful islands, in people often gentle and ironic, and in the social democratic society, even while suspecting that comfortable state provision breeds a certain conformism which might give a bloody-minded loner like me a hard time, and also being aware of an undoubted dark underbelly of disaffection, corruption and crime.

My visits to Sweden were some years ago, but I'd begun to dream of the place again recently. British journalist Andrew Brown's fine book, Fishing in Utopia, about the years he lived in Sweden is the kind of book we need more of in this age of superficial globalisation. As each appeared in English translation, I've also devoured all of Henning Mankell's books about Inspector Kurt Wallander and crime in a small southern Swedish town. The popularity of 'Nordic crime' novels, which are mostly founded in uncompromising social criticism, seems to me a rather good thing, despite my qualms about the extent to which the publishing industry - and the small translation industry too, these days - are in thrall to the all-too-saleable crime fiction genre at the expense of more varied fiction, and about the way it panders to some of our worst instincts for vicarious horror and violence.

Late last year my  Finnish friend came back from Finland with a boxed DVD set of the Swedish TV Wallander films (made by the same production company as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and better, to my mind and my Finnish friend's, that the British TV films with Kenneth Branagh) and when she'd watched them all back to back I borrowed the box and did the same, revelling in the somewhat different take on a familiar genre, the landscapes and the wry, singing Swedish language, the quiet scripting and acting, and most of all the matter-of-fact portrayal of women which made me realise anew how stereotyped the 'strong' heroines of British or American cop shows still are.

So, might the film of Stieg Larsson's first novel just be less compromised, less compromising than I feared? After all, they had kept in Sweden the book's original title, Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), too bald and uncommercial for the anglosaxon market. I wasn't disappointed. I was spellbound. This may well be the only time I'll unequivocally experience the pleasures of an action thriller, the kind of thing I'd usually find a complete turn-off for its noisy, illogical violence and sexism. Just for once, oh my goodness, here's an action thriller with a heroine who is not objectified, a solid but vulnerable hero, and its heart and soul firmly in the right place.

Not everybody thinks so. Some critics  have accused the film of sadism and misogyny. Excuse me? These reviewers need to look to their own ingrained reactions if they felt the film was propagating violence against women rather than than exposing it. Stieg Larsson's stories deal with terrible acts of violence against women, perpetrated by sick individuals and by organised crime. They are lurid tales of horrific deeds. Some people will therefore want to avoid the films as gratuitously upsetting in spite of the perspective taken, and that's a legitimate reaction. But for those not too sensitive to this, who can watch and hear about violence in a stylised, almost cartoonish setting and find their visceral upset adequately held by the equally visceral structured resolution of the form - well, this is as good as it gets.

When Lisbeth is mugged in the subway, the impact is personal and emotional. I gasped and tears came to my eyes. But the graphic scenes of her sadistic rape and subsequent violent revenge, though they horrified and repelled me, didn't have the same emotional effect. I don't know enough about film technique (soundtrack, camera angles?) to account for this, but I think it was deliberately, successfully achieved.

I've never seen a film more faithful to the book it was based on, though sadly and inevitably without the digressions. But of course, of course, if you've read the books, imagined your way through those three long volumes, the film actors will not be the characters of your imagination. Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are not much like Lisbeth and Mikael as I imagined them, but they are the screenwriter's, and the actors', legitimate and sensitive versions. They work. They are, perhaps, more interesting than 'my' versions, especially the depiction of Mikael as tough but almost passive in comparison with Lisbeth's vivid unpredictability. Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are both terrific actors, as is every one of the supporting cast (and, gosh, the women in their forties and fifites actually have a few wrinkles). Characterisation, in an action movie, is necessarily sketchy. But here you don't feel you've seen all there is to a person, but that you've just caught a glimpse of a complex character about whom you can continue to speculate, you'll perhaps find out more in the sequel, but that will still not be all...

Indeed, I do continue to speculate. I've not stopped thinking about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and would happily see it again - an uncommon reaction, surely, to a thriller, which once climaxed and resolved has generally done its stuff, and a tribute to a rather amazing film. Three cheers. Unalloyed enthusiasm. Not a lot of that about.

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Swedish trailer with subtitles. Avoid the English-language trailer, which is terrible - one of those horribly cliched and overdone voiceovers.


alembic said...

I looked at the book (well, the cover) at my local bookstore, but resisted getting it, thinking it's just another thriller. Your review, though, makes me want to go back and really read the trilogy.

Fire Bird said...

wow! you've certainly whetted my appetite. I'd heard the 'misogynist' criticism, but won't be put off now...

Peter Clothier said...

I share your enthusiasm for the first in the series. A prescient glimpse at what was to happen in America and elsewhere in the world, thanks to the greed of the financial giants. Have not yet read the second. I'm too cheap to buy the hardback!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear about this movie. I wouldn't be able to watch it without having the crap triggered out of me, so won't. But real women and these issues portrayed is important.

Lucy said...

Your reviews always impress me greatly. Thanks for taking the time to express yourself so well.

Dick said...

This has inspired me to ring up the babysitter and organise Emma and I to the cinema for the first time in a very long while. And to get a bit of focussed book buying done too. Thanks, Jean!