Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson’s unexpected death in 2004 put a spotlight on his trilogy of suspense novels. They tell the story of Lisbeth Salander – a young, intelligent woman driven by the horror she experiences as a ward of the state – and investigative journalist Michael Blomkvist, who seeks to expose corruption in high places. Out of the books came three films, of which this is the second.
Salander embarks on a mission to uncover the brutal history of her family. Along the way she exposes corruption at the heart of the police force and Swedish secret service, including trafficking women.
Larsson’s trilogy is fast paced and exciting, employing state of the art technology with a big dose of suspense. The film captures the stark, almost clinical, detail Larsson employs in the book that sometimes leaves the viewer feeling like a forensic pathologist. What makes it different is that it also effortlessly challenges institutionalised homophobia, sexism and the brutality of the state without coming across as contrived. Larsson even manages to throw the remnants of the Cold War spy industry into the mix, giving the series an intriguing political undertone.
In this film we learn more about Salander’s brutal past, which shapes her understanding of the world as a place where men have power, and those who make up the state – whether social services, education or the police – are not to be trusted. This drives her fierce independence and mistrust of most people.
She is described as bisexual in mainstream press reviews – but she doesn’t define her sexuality in the film. She has sex with whoever she chooses based on desire. Because of all her negative life experiences she finds it difficult to trust another human being. Her need to be in control of her life at all times is frustrating and isolating.
It is in exploring the contradiction of Salander’s seeming confidence and fears that I think the film version of the book falls slightly short. In the book, when she is accused of murder and hunted by the police, she chooses a cover – a new identity – studies it and delivers it with the confidence and skill of an accomplished actor. She is never a victim, even when she is being beaten or on the run. She brings fearsome vengeance down on those who have wronged her, people she cares for and the innocent women abused along the way.
But in the film the director on occasion allows Salander to slip into victim mode. She sometimes comes across as scared and out of control.
What makes Larsson’s books distinct is that they refuse to fall into the trap of turning Salander into a helpless victim – the typical stereotype of women under pressure in suspense films.
But that slight irritation doesn’t dominate what is an engaging and exciting film which is worth watching. I would also give the books a try.
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A pick of the highlights