Girl with the Dragon TattooOrange lightAdapted from the first instalment of one of the most popular Swedish book series of all time, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a long, windy and impossible to figure out whodunit with a sadistic sting in its tail. Common consensus seems to be that author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy books are the biggest thing to come out of the country since ABBA, and no – they don’t get a guernsey on the soundtrack.

Director Niels Arden Oplev combines formulaic join-the-dots investigatory drama with moments of frighteningly realistic criminal undertakings (some of which wouldn’t feel out of place in a Saw movie) and the cumulative effect is a gnarly not-afraid-to-go-there thriller complete with rape, murder, misogynism; even a Nazi or two thrown in for good measure.

The eponymous girl is Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), a quiet 24-year-old Goth tomboy with an introverted personality, that ol’ Troubled Past chestnut and an expert ability to get dirt on her professional victims, mostly by hacking their computers. She teams up with disgraced middle-aged journo Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) to help him solve a 40-year-old missing person case. A young woman disappeared way back when and her uncle Henrik (Sven-Bertil Taube) has imagined of her a very grim fate.

The characters edge towards solving the mystery by doing very little – staring at photographs, rattling papers, fiddling on computers – before they eventually get thrust into hands-on detective work: dodging bullets in a forest, escaping from creepy cellars and so forth.

Until the point Lisbeth and Mikael’s stories intersect, Lisbeth’s – primarily about a man blackmailing her into performing sexual acts – is much more interesting, though it feels like it belongs to a different film. Mikael spends a very long time studying old photos – almost long enough, so he seems to think, for a retractable hand to emerge from behind them and literally point him in the right direction. Story bookends about Mikael’s court case against a shady tycoon feel unnecessary, and, again, like they belong to a different film. The running time is long: 146 minutes.

Don’t bother trying to figure out who-done-it. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is one of those mystery thrillers in which the characters remain a few steps ahead of the audience (whether they know it or not), making even cluey viewers feel a wee bit dumb, and that feeling in this instance is exacerbated by the language gap – the idea there is something we don’t know, something we can’t quite get a grip on.

But there is much to like, or (if you can’t stomach the darker moments) certainly much to respect. Oplev manages to pull off an impressive blend of realism with hyper detective story conventions, and the story remains plausible even as it moves into a cushier and more familiar format. There are some intense, precisely directed scenes you may wish to forget but can’t and others that feel limp and extraneous.

The two lead characters are very well acted: two twitchy, morose performances from Rapace and Nyqvist keep the film interesting even when the pace wanes. Unfortunately the story overstays its welcome and continues with events that feel tacked onto the masthead, and subsequently the film tips into the precious realm of when-will-it-end?

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Australian theatrical release date: March 25, 2010.

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