Film Review – The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)
The second installment of the film trilogy spawned from Steig Larson’s best-selling series Millennium, The Girl Who Played With Fire, takes place approximately one year after the Vanger case. The focus of the second film shifts to Lisbeth Salander’s life and upbringing, exploring the traumatic events of her childhood and the dysfunction of her family life. Director Daniel Alfredson takes a deeper look at the woman behind the mask. The audience begins to understand how the events of Lisbeth’s past caused the deep psychological scarring that haunts her as an adult. The following review does contain spoilers, so please proceed with caution.
Directed by: Daniel Alfredson
Written by: Ulf Rydberg
Starring: Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace
After helping journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) solve the forty-year-old murder of Harriet Vanger, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) left Sweden to travel the world. Nearly a year has gone by since the events of the first film, and Lisbeth is reveling in the prospect of personal peace. Alone on a beach with good food, her cigs, and her computer, she allows the occasional island man or woman of her choosing access to her humble bungalow. But, when a new case pops up on the scene in Sweden, Salander decides to leave her secluded paradise in the Caribbean and return to Stockholm permanently.
Millennium is about to publish a huge story about the European sex trade. Independent journalist Dag Svensson (Hans Christina Thulin) and his Ph.D. seeking girlfriend Mia Bergman have uncovered a sex-trafficking ring operating in Sweden. Mia’s thesis research includes conversations with women forced into the sex trade. They divulged the names of several high-profile government officials who paid for sex while turning a blind eye to the criminal acts and kidnappings involved in sex-trafficking. Her boyfriend Dag takes the research to Millennium, and the writers are overjoyed to shed light on a problem that affects a largely forgotten sector of the population.
When Dag and Mia turn up dead, Blomkvist and Salander once again find themselves immersed in a complicated case involving murder, violence against women, and government conspiracy. This time, however, Salander finds herself in the middle, with the police naming her as their chief suspect. While Salander evades the authorities and investigates the circumstances behind the murders, Blomkvist follows her breadcrumbs and tries to keep her out of harm’s way.
A directorial change-up from the first film put Swedish director Daniel Alfredson in the driver’s seat for The Girl Who Played With Fire. This film was originally slated for television release, but due to the international success of the first film, producers quickly altered their course and set the last two films for theatrical release.
Filming for all three installments took place over the course of a year and a half. Noomi has described the experience as grueling but well worth it. The continuous shooting allowed her to fully immerse herself in the role. The length of the shoot permitted her to explore the shifts and changes in her character. This might not have been possible if she had participated in other projects between filming.
Lisbeth’s Background is Fully Fleshed Out
The second film of the series alleviates the mystery of Lisbeth Salander’s childhood. Blomkvist finds Lisbeth’s former guardian Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson) in a convalescent home recovering from a stroke. Palmgren expounds upon the events leading up to Lisbeth’s declaration of incompetence and reveals the identity of her father. This is a huge piece of the puzzle that provides much-needed relief to the audience just from the sheer complexity of the story.
Her father would return after long absences and repeatedly sexually assault her mother. He describes to Blomkvist how she filled a milk carton with gasoline, dumped it on her father, and then struck a match. Her ferocious hunger for revenge and the fact that she was twelve years old makes it all the more disturbing. The child actor who plays young Lisbeth, Tehilla Blad, does an incredible job using her facial expressions to exude rage. Though she doesn’t speak, you can see a frightening darkness behind her eyes. The system failed to protect Lisbeth and her mother, and so she takes matters into her own hands. She effectively alters the course of her own life forever.
In The Girl Who Played with Fire, details of Lisbeth’s hospitalization and institutional torture are revealed. In her dreams, Lisbeth relives her experiences in the mental institution. The audience gets a shocking visual as Noomi contorts her body in her sleep as though she is actually being restrained. Those experiences haunt Lisbeth, and Rapace uses her physical body to tell that story. That was enough to make me shudder at the thought of what can possibly go on behind the closed doors of a mental hospital. As it turns out, her captivity was orchestrated by people interested in keeping the existence of her father under wraps. A bigger government conspiracy is at work, and Lisbeth inadvertently entangles herself within it.
The Film Explores Cultural Branding
This film addresses how society brands certain groups of people. When searching Lisbeth’s lover Miriam’s apartment, the cops find racy underwear and sex toys. They make crude comments and unwarranted assumptions about the young woman’s character based on these findings. In one scene while interrogating Miriam, one of the detectives asks her inappropriate questions about her sexual relationship with Lisbeth. He becomes fixated on Lisbeth being “gay,” and brings it up at every available opportunity during the investigation. His hatred for women living outside the normal confines of sexuality is apparent. This results in major conflicts between him and a female detective.
The Girl Who Played With Fire takes a hard look at what happens when a woman is labeled a “whore.” Dag and Mia’s research name several high-profile clients, including a member of the Justice Department who helped draft laws on sex-trafficking. Even the officials in charge of keeping this from happening are taking advantage of it. Dag describes how these women are on the outskirts of society, and thus disregarded. “A whore is a whore in the eyes of the law,” he says. This statement suggests that regardless of whether or not these women were forced into the trade, society deems they are worth very little.
The Character of Lisbeth is Evolving
Lisbeth is extremely complicated, and her motivations are sometimes difficult to dissect. The Lisbeth we see in this film is more emotionally exposed than in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. One of her estranged friends criticizes her for her lack of contact while she was abroad. He accuses her of not caring about her friends. Her reaction exposes a softness that the first film guarded heavily.
The scenes between her and her former guardian Holger Palmgren are particularly endearing. Rapace depicts a gentle and protective side of Lisbeth. It seems like lack of focus rather than indifference is the root cause of her aloofness towards those who care.
Lisbeth evolves into a semi-emotional being. Noomi Rapace appears to be comfortable playing the character in this way. She physically relaxes in scenes depicting Lisbeth and her friends/lovers. In a dramatic departure from Lisbeth’s tough persona, Rapace allows a mild femininity to surface by softening her posture and facial expressions. I think Lisbeth wants to be kind and feel happiness, but her former trauma has shaped her too definitively to make this demeanor constant. Regardless, the flashes of tenderness we see in Lisbeth’s behavior are just enough to make the audience connect with her.
This change was absolutely necessary for the second installment of this series. Though her character was compelling and her enigmatic presence built tension in the first film, it most certainly would have grown stale had they continued to show her exclusively as an anti-social hermit.
The Girl Who Played with Fire turned out to be a great following act to the first film. Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist both seem like they slipped back into familiar skins. Though the pair does not meet on-screen until the last scene, the connection between them is undeniable.
The thought of another director taking on the last two films in this series didn’t have me enthused. I must admit that I approached this film with a much less open mind than I did with the first. This film turned out to be so much better than expected. Daniel Alfredson’s work truly impressed me. He continued the story without disrupting the general tone of the series. He crafted the same unyielding suspense build-up that is present in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; I imagine that was not an easy task!
Just like its predecessor, this film makes the viewer think about deep cultural issues impacting society today. Violence against women, government corruption, and mental health issues are all topics relevant in contemporary society. Larson’s work is powerful, and Rapace and Nyqvist bring the material to life in a way that it makes the discussion about these difficult topics palatable for broader audiences.
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