Saturday, 28 August 2010

'The Girl Who Played With Fire' review:

In my review of the first of the Swedish-made adaptations from Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', I remarked that its original Swedish title ('Men Who Hate Women') was perhaps a better fit with the material. Certainly that film saw the hacker-punk heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), repeatedly sexually assaulted, raped and otherwise kicked around – the violence depicted with unflinching grit and unsettling realism. True, the film also allowed Salander to enact extreme and brutal revenge on her rapist. But in the main, Salander is a women beaten and abused with uncustomary regularity – at least for a leading lady.

Well the sequel, 'The Girl Who Played With Fire', allows Salander to exact a little more pain on her (male) assailants. She knees them in the balls, tasers them (also in the balls), shoots them, threatens to hang them, and so on. And the men deserve it, such as they are here. Or at least that is what we are so clearly being telegraphed to think. One man - who has paid for sex with prostitutes and so is evil - is easily distracted as he talks to Salander's friend, ace investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), eying up a jogger and then a young mother as she pushes in baby along in a stroller. Men in this world are sleazy characters who deserve the roughest treatment, and often receive it to our vengeful satisfaction.

It is strangely reminiscent of Tarantino's 'Kill Bill' in some respects. Obvious plot parallels include the fact that Lisbeth has been sexually assaulted and takes the law into her own hands, as well as the fact that this film features a scene in which she is buried alive. But it is also reminiscent of Tarantino by way of its old testament bloodlust and in the way that it equates literal female strength with female empowerment. It is, much like 'Kill Bill', a film written and directed by men who (in my view erroneously) believe they are acting as equal opportunity crusaders. Instead they are simply perpetuating violence and playing up to the worst aspects of human nature: showing them on the screen and appealing to those instincts in the audience.

Perhaps one way in which this film is unique, is in its completely de-sexualized depiction of Rapace's character. She is tough, resilient, cold: seldom smiling and seemingly unable to take any joy from life. Even during sex scenes she is never presented to us as an object of desire. This is brave and certainly sets this film, and this character, apart from the likes of Uma Thurman's heroine in 'Kill Bill' - who more traditionally plays up to a male fantasy image. However, this does help to make Lisbeth fairly unappealing as a character. There is no beauty in the film, and no humour at all. There is no lightness here to counteract the shade, no relief from the constant onslaught of nasty, perverted men. This world is so ugly that it is hard to understand why anyone would want to survive in it to begin with. There is no humanity and the characters are less than two-dimensional. Sure, Lisbeth has a "back story" and with it a straightforward psychological justification for her actions. But nobody else, especially the antagonists, can make any claim to depth.

On the positive side, this sequel is marginally less dull than its predecessor, although it is still overlong and suffers from monumental pacing problems (it takes around 40 minutes before Lisbeth is falsely accused of murder: the central plot catalyst this time around). It is also less TV-like in its aesthetic, possibly aided by the change of director, with Daniel Alfredson (brother of 'Let the Right One In' helmer, Tomas Alfredson) stepping in. It is also less of a formulaic "whodunit", detective story. That element remains, of course, with Blomqvist frantically trying to prove that Lisbeth is not the killer. But this film is more full of action and incident. There are many more fights, there is a car chase and a genuinely tense and gripping finale (or I imagine it would have been had I cared about any of the characters at that point).

Whilst the first film felt like it could have been a one-off episode of a detective series - albeit with much more graphic sex and violence than you'd usually find watching Angela Lansbury - this film feels much more like part of a longer story. It leads neatly into the upcoming film ('The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest') with an 'Empire Strikes Back' style ending, and follows on from a few threads established during the first. But, for me, 'The Girl Who Played With Fire' is an ugly film about a deeply unsympathetic character who at times seems only a second away from becoming Jigsaw or 'Se7en's John Doe - she is certainly capable of being just as sadistic as the men she despises. For some that maybe the appeal. Lisbeth is certainly not a fragile victim and she gives as good as she gets. But, call me old fashioned, I'd sooner not get my kicks from seeing men or women taking theirs.

'The Girl Who Played With Fire' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out on general release across the UK.

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