The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)

aka Flickan som lekte med elden

2011 #39
Daniel Alfredson | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

The Girl Who Played with FireCreating any kind of sequel is hard — the endless array of failed attempts is testament to that — but I think creating a direct sequel to a successful crime thriller may be the hardest.

With action movies or superheroes or what have you, the same formula can be rehashed; it’s better if the concept or story is pushed forward, of course, but as most movies in those genres have the same plot regardless of the hero, it stands to reason the sequels can survive it too. With a straight drama you can continue the lives of the characters, throw some new, plausible (preferably), dramatic hurdle in their path and show how it affects their lives. But with a crime thriller…

Almost by definition a good portion of your cast are wiped out: if you didn’t kill them for the sake of a twist, they’re gone because they were tied to the first case. Drag every survivor back at your peril: their mystery’s been solved, and the chance of them all being involved in a new one is too improbable to consider. So you’re left with only the one or two or three investigators, Blomkvist. Mikael Blomkvist.and they need a brand new case to become embroiled in. And it’s got to be as good as the last one, but it can’t be the same because we’ve had that mystery solved. You could have a different solution, of course; you could change some of the details, naturally; but police dramas on TV vary their types of murders every week for a reason. So in your new tale, the new characters have to be just as interesting as the first batch, the new mystery has to be just as intriguing too, and it really ought to be a notably different crime being investigated.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has an advantage here: with Lisbeth Salander as a break-out character, you can take a certain degree of the drama tactic and just throw something new in her path. Plus there’s the only story thread left hanging from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the handful of hints at Lisbeth’s past, to feed off as well. On the other hand, there’s the problem of having sent Salander off to a new rich life at the end of the first book/film. Not only do you have to get her back, you have to re-team her with the investigative driving force of the first tale, journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Unlike a cop and his partner, say, these two have no shorthand way they would have to be reunited. There are other ways — the fact they had developed some kind of sex-based intimacy for starters — though for goodness knows what reason that’s ignored here in favour of some plot-engineered improbabilities of fate.

Salander. Lisbeth Salander.One solution to the sequel problem is to “make it personal”, and that’s exactly what we get in The Girl Who Played with Fire. A journalist and his girlfriend working for Mikael are murdered and Lisbeth is suspected of the crime. It’s somewhere around here that the coincidences begin to pile up. It makes perfect sense as a plot in itself, but in bringing Mikael and Lisbeth back together it doesn’t work — it’s not related to their previous encounter, so it’s entirely coincidental. Coincidence is a dangerous thing in fiction; it asks your audience to accept something that doesn’t fit our logic of how stories work. It happens all the time in real life of course, but in real life a flipped coin with a 50/50 chance of being heads or tails could turn up heads twenty times in a row, but a person asked to estimate twenty results of a flipped coin will never put more than two or three of one side in a row (unless they know to subvert it… look, this isn’t the point).

That said, if you want to be kind (and why not?), time has passed since they last met — it’s not as if Mikael ran into Lisbeth while pursuing his very next article. (We’ll overlook that the time passed is the nice round period of a year.)

What about the case itself, then? Sadly it’s not as engrossing or unique as the one in Dragon Tattoo. It seems based in sex trafficking, but that’s just window dressing: Villainous villainsit’s never seriously looked into and, consequently, other dramas have tackled the issue with greater depth, sensitivity and insight. What Mikael and Lisbeth are actually looking into is a conspiracy of sorts around some murders. The way the trail is followed isn’t as clever as it was in Dragon Tattoo and, consequently, isn’t as interesting. The two protagonists go about their investigations independently. This is a long-held technique in novel writing — multiple strands allows the author to alternate which is followed from chapter to chapter, almost by itself providing momentum and the must-keep-reading factor as the reader has to race through the next chapter to rejoin the thread of the previous one (it’s not that simple or we’d all be churning them out… but look, I’m getting off the point again). The problem here is that Dragon Tattoo was largely at its best when the two were together, so keeping them apart is less satisfying. To top that off, they’re each finding out different things, which means as the audience we can feel a few steps ahead of the characters as we have the benefit of both sides of the case. That’s not always a bad thing, but it can be slightly disconcerting when you know the answers your hero is still searching for.

Arson-bent bikersDespite Lisbeth being the focus of much of the attention laden on these books/films/remakes, she’s a less engaging character when by herself. Here she shuffles around silently, digging up files that she and we stare at to reveal information. There are only a few moments for her (and, consequently, Noomi Rapace) to show off what endeared her to viewers before — her confrontation with a pair of arson-bent bikers, for instance.

Revelations at the end of the second act give things a kick up the rear, both for the characters and the plot, but it still has an undue reliance on coincidence, varying degrees of improbability, and the middling conspiracy plotting. This felt underscored by a henchman who’s essentially a Bond villain. In fact, as a white-blond (half-)German who feels no pain, he’s a specific Bond henchman (see: Tomorrow Never Dies).

The ending isn’t close to being conclusive. The mysteries where this particular tale began are solved, but numerous questions thrown up along the way are only just beginning to be answered. Whereas Dragon Tattoo works perfectly as a standalone thriller, even though it hinted at elements of Lisbeth’s backstory, this builds on them and leaves plenty hanging. In this respect it seems to be very much Part Two of a series (I’d say “trilogy”, but considering Larsson had (depending on which report you believe) five to ten books planned, that seems inherently inaccurate).

Tomorrow Never DiesIt also feels less filmic than the first film. Is it poor direction? Is it just the opened-up 1.78:1 ratio? I’ve read that all three films were shot like this, as they were intended for Swedish TV, meaning Dragon Tattoo’s Blu-ray is cropped to 2.35:1. You hardly ever see 2.35:1 on TV (Red Riding is the only made-for-TV example I can think of; most channels even crop films) so it automatically lends a filmic aspect, and therefore might explain the discrepancy. Conversely, I’ve also read that Dragon Tattoo was produced as a cinema film then later the two sequels were shot to serve as episodes three to six of a TV miniseries (with Tattoo extended using deleted scenes to make the first two episodes). Perhaps that explains it.

That’s besides the point anyway, because it’s not the direction or cinematography that lets The Girl Who Played with Fire down in comparison to its predecessor. In summary: the case isn’t as unique or enthralling, and by splitting up the protagonists we don’t get the full benefit of either. It’s not a bad tale, it’s just not a patch on the first.

3 out of 5

This time next week, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. Hopefully.

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