My German friends always described Denmark as starkly beautiful. It was years before I had time on a business trip to walk around Copenhagen, see the Little Mermaid, then take the ferry across to Southern Sweden. The short trip across the Baltic was not a tourist one given that I was on an ice reinforced ferry where the bow smashed through the sea ice in mid-January as if a cannon was on full automatic fire.
But the advantage of visiting Sweden in the winter was I did see it without tourists and began to understand what my friends meant by “stark beauty”. And if you do not have the cash for a visit to one of the more expensive parts of Europe, a quick ten dollars to see the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo illuminates the massive stone architecture and subtle colors of old Sweden contrasting with the new sleek modern architecture and design of Scandinavia. A land where I was never warm even in summer, but perpetually surprised with a totally different brand of Western life. If nothing else, this movie captures the specialness of Scandinavia better than any movie since Ingmar Bergman.
Based on the novel by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, a Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) deciphers a forty year old disappearance of a young girl with the help of a bizarre young woman private detective, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Lisbeth is everything my mother did not want my sister to turn into – a tattooed, pierced, gothic girl of insatiable directness. And she has behind her a dark past that included burning her father alive and a history of being a ward of the state. An obvious victim of past sexual violence we see her ability for maximum violence explode after her current social worker rapes her. And it is this smoldering violence coupled with incredible computer and deductive powers that makes her the perfect match for Mikael.
If the movie has a weakness, it is trying to imagine the impossibly English Daniel Craig of James Bond fame as a Swede. But the rest of the cast of familiar actors (Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, and Yorick van Wageningen) manage to convey the solid Scandinavian outward calm while obviously hiding innumerable personal secrets. And it is Lisabeth’s smoldering open weirdness that ferrets out most of the secrets that lie beneath the mystery Mikael can only partly uncover on his own.
It is now the fashion to morph most mystery stories into Jason Bourne action movies with a quivering camera barely able to keep up with continuous action. Even Sherlock Holmes is now converted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s cerebral deductive reasoner into a martial arts champion. And though the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo has plenty of action, a movie that eventually uncovers a Swedish serial killer requires a more contemplative pace twisting from clue to clue.
That pace allows the characters to develop slowly over two hours and forty minutes. The plot unwinds from a disgraced investigative journalist hoping for redemption solving a four decade old mystery, to his discovery of Lisbeth’s investigative talents, then her overpowering of him into a sexual liaison that matches a bizarre descent into the world of genetic serial killers.
This is a great movie on many levels, but primarily in reminding us of how the combination of great acting in an under studied part of the world can make a dark plot supremely accessible yet totally foreign. And depending on the state of your relationship the explicit romance scenes and violence can make for a great night out with your spouse or date. It can even suggest a summer trip to Scandinavia as a perfect sequel.