My thoughts on the Swedish/Norwegian film series based on the three-book Millennium series by Stieg Larsson. The films are "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", "The Girl Who Played with Fire", and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest".
All together this is a Mystery Crime Thriller group of films with tones of Revenge and Redemption and all together a sweeping character drama.
These are the subtitled Swedish language films, not the english-language remake of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" that is in theaters.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1132620/
I figured with the English-language remake of this film hitting theaters this December I would take a look at the original film that I've heard talked about so positively the past couple of years. And, if I like it enough, will probably watch the two sequels as well. They are in Swedish language, but they're captioned, so there's only having to deal with that.
Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative reporter/editor for Millennium Magazine, goes on trial for libel for an article he published about an investigation he did into a company. He claims he is innocent, that he was set up. Especially considering all his sources disappeared and all of the documents they provided turned out to be fakes. He's found guilty and is sentenced to a fine and some jail-time, which he is scheduled to begin serving in six months.
Henrik Vanger, one of the retired owners of a different family-owned company, had him investigated by Milton Security company to determine if he is actually corrupt or is as outstanding an investigator as he was believed to be prior to the trial. Based on a good report Vanger decides to hire him through the security company for the duration of that six-month waiting period to look into a 40 year old mystery involving the disappearance/possible murder of his niece.
Lisbeth, an investigator/hacker that works for Milton Security, continues to check up on Mikael. Why isn't exactly clear, perhaps out of curiosity because she could find no evidence of any wrongdoing, or perhaps she's compelled to keep digging because, as she said, 'everybody has secrets.' As she continues to hack into and peek at his computer she stumbles upon some of the evidence related to the disappearance. It is a list of names and/or initials and possible phone numbers that seemingly go no where. Lisbeth comes up with a possible connection that neither Mikael nor the investigating police were able to make. She sends him an anonymous(ish) email deciphering the coded text. When he mentions receiving the email to his contact at the security company, the one that introduced him to Vanger, the man realizes who it probably was and puts Mikael in contact with Lisbeth. Together they begin unraveling the threads of the 40 year old mystery.
Actually, a heck of a lot more than just that happens. Things that deal with character establishment, hints at Lisbeth's past, troubles she deals with in her personal life. They all tie in to the story in some way, establishing character motivations and responses to situations. Even if the story seems centered on Mikael and his investigation, the central character is clearly Lisbeth.
Although the mystery itself isn't very complex once the investigation reaches its climax and we've seen the solution, watching the mystery followed and unraveled and the character development is riveting. For a 2+ hour film it certainly didn't feel like it, despite reading translated dialog throughout.
There are some brutal and graphic scenes in this film, scenes of sexual nature and sexual assaults/rapes. They aren't just thrown in for spicing up the film, they're present because they are integral to the story. If you have issues watching stuff like that, either don't see the film, turn away when appropriate, or tough it out because you're forewarned.
If the remake (starring Daniel Craig) is anywhere near as good as this film it'll prove to be quite awesome. A good mystery story will reach a wider English-speaking audience. And I'm definitely going to check out the Swedish-language sequels.
The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1216487/
The story of Lisbeth continues, starting around a year or so after the previous film ends. Mikael Blomkvist and his Millennium Magazine return as well.
A budding writer approaches Mikael and his magazine with a story about illegal sex-trafficking, specifically those who have availed themselves of the service and possible tracking down one group responsible for the trafficking. He already has vetted sources. His story ties in with his girlfriend's PhD work, which specifically covers the effects on the girls involved in these sex-trafficking rings.
The writer and his girlfriend are found murdered, murdered with a gun belonging to Lisbeth's legal guardian. And Lisbeth's fingerprints are on that gun. When the police go to question him they find he has been murdered as well. Lisbeth is now wanted by the police for the murders.
Mikael tries to track down what is going on to clear Lisbeth's name. Lisbeth is doing the same. They aren't directly working together, but working toward the same goal.
Events from the previous film directly tie into this story. The legal guardian and his relationship to Lisbeth was first introduced to us in the first film. Her having a legal guardian despite being 'of age' involves those events from her past revealed in the first film. Lisbeth's past is fleshed out more and factors directly into the story.
I don't think it is essential to have seen "Dragon Tattoo" first to figure out what is going on in "Played with Fire". However the tie-ins to characters and back story established in "Dragon Tattoo" certainly will inform one's sense of character connections. It's much better to have watched "Dragon Tattoo" first.
As with the first film there's plenty of character development, mystery, thrills, violence. We get to find and follow the threads that all lead to the tapestry woven at the core of the story along with Lisbeth and Mikael. As with its preceding film the story, pacing, acting, film as a whole is so compelling that by the end it didn't feel like I just watched a 2+ hour film.
However the conclusion of the film doesn't feel like a conclusion to the story. It leaves the viewer wanting, wanting for a conclusion to the bigger story that was hinted at in "Dragon Tattoo" and greatly expanded in "Played with Fire". Once I watched this film I felt I had no recourse but see it through to the end by watching the next film in the series.
Is this film as good as its predecessor? Hard to tell. "Dragon Tattoo" sets a high bar because it is so 'fresh and new' in the sea of recent film productions. In comparison "Played with Fire" might seem to fall a little short of that mark, especially when you already know part of the story from the first film and its conclusion isn't near as conclusive. I think had this come out by itself it may have been just as acclaimed. But I still feel its better to have seen "Dragon Tattoo" first.
Glad I watched it and I'm certainly going to finish this series of films. And, if the remake of the first is a hit I'm certain they'll finish remaking the rest of the series as well.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1343097/
The final installment of the series. This one picks up exactly where the previous film leaves off.
Even though it would be possible to start here it wouldn't be worth it. Starting here would be like watching "Return of the King" before the previous two "Lord of the Rings" films. It can be done, but why? There is no way to really understand the depth of the back story for the events in this film without having seen its predecessors.
The film continues to plumb Lisbeth's past and the details and greater-reaching interconnections of the story behind it. Even though it has a bit less action than the first two films, the story and the compelling thrilling drama playing out is just as deep and developed, and it brings closure to the events started in "Played with Fire". Performances and production are just as solid as with the first two films.
I'm not going to talk about much else, this film is really dependent on its predecessors and discussing its story line could possibly be too spoilery for the other two films.
In conclusion concerning the series
One could watch "Dragon Tattoo" and be satisfied with an involving story played well to its conclusion. It works that well stand-alone. If "Played with Fire" is watched then "Kicked the Hornet's Nest" almost has to be watched to bring satisfactory closure to the grander story arc.
I'm glad they started with "Dragon Tattoo" because it is such a strong compelling story. They could have started in the middle, with "Played with Fire" then "Kicked" before releasing "Dragon Tattoo", but I don't think that order would have felt near as cohesive or powerful nor would it have served the grander story as well.*
The Millennium series as a whole is really good and worth watching. Each have their compelling stories embedded within a grander story arc and, when spread over a couple nights of watching, provide hours of quality entertainment. I'm glad I watched them.
And, the more I ponder the films, I have to wonder why are they remaking them in English? They are already outstanding films as they exist. Perhaps it is just because they aren't in English and they are great stories and film studios smell good money to be had in remakes of outstanding foreign films. Like "Let the Right One In". Same thing. Outstanding foreign film as is and it didn't require being remade, but they did anyway. Not a complaint, an observation.
* One could contrast that with the Hannibal Lecter story. "The Silence of the Lambs" worked so well that they made "Hannibal" then "Red Dragon". The point being that starting in the middle with "Silence" followed by "Hannibal" then working back to "Red Dragon" would be a similar order of story progression as watching "Played with Fire" then "Kicked" before "Dragon Tattoo". But what worked for Lecter wouldn't necessarily work for Lisbeth.
Yes I know that "Red Dragon" is essentially the same story as "Manhunter", and "Manhunter" predates "Silence" by five years. Despite being a good film in its own right "Manhunter" never received the acclaim "Silence" received and didn't truly launch the series.
I don't want to get off track on the Lecter series, perhaps I'll save that for another time.
Side note about something I found out reading up about this series of films. They made a miniseries out of these films consisting of footage from the same production as the films. Each film is recut into 2 episodes of an hour and a half each, a total of six episodes. The miniseries clocks in at 9 hours story which makes it almost 2 hours longer than the three films combined. I'm curious to see what else from the stories they include, but I don't think the television miniseries is available to watch over here just yet. Apparently only "Dragon Tattoo" was intended to be a film followed by straight-to-TV-miniseries for the remainder of the stories, however the film did so well they cut the remaining two films from the production for the series.
Edit 21 March 2012:
I noticed a couple few weeks ago that the Millenium TV miniseries is now available streaming on Netflix. Woot!