Wednesday, March 16, 2011

New Release Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest (Daniel Alfredson, 2010)

Swedish thriller The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest is the final screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson's highly popular Millenium Series, following The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. More novels were believed to follow, but the Swedish journalist and author prematurely passed away. The lengthy final film, like the disappointing second installment, is directed by Daniel Alfredson, and directly follows the events of the preceding film. For those who haven't seen the first two films of the series, this review and the film experience itself will make very little sense. They were written to be read as a series, and the films work the same way.

Following her violent meeting with her father, Zalachenko, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) is found barely alive by Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) and hospitalized in Gothenburg. Zalachenko, who had suffered an axe wound to the head, also survives and is taken to the same hospital where he recovers in a room down the hall. Lisbeth will sit trial for the attempted murder of her father. Blomqvist begins investigating Lisbeth's unwarranted commitment to the mental hospital at age twelve and begins to question the continued unfair treatment of her character by the Swedish authorities. Lisbeth had once before attempted to kill her father, after finally succumbing to years of his abuse towards her and her mother. Zalachenko remained unpunished for his sins, protected because of his notoriety as a Soviet defector and spy. He is the man responsible for The Section, a group within the Secret Police formed to cover up Zalachenko's misdeeds, including Lisbeth's wrongful commitment to the asylum and subsequent declaration of legal incompetence upon release. Everything tragic that has happened to this woman, including her societal alienation and vicious rape depicted in the first film, is because of this. Blomqvist begins building her trial defense and asks his sister Annika to be Lisbeth's lawyer.

Former corrupt colleagues of Zalachenko meet and discuss how to proceed with the situation. To avoid risking the revelation of their involvement they decide to silence both Zalachenko and Lisbeth, sending a crippled elderly member suffering from liver cancer to the hospital to assassinate them. He kills Zalachenko and after unsuccessfully getting to Lisbeth, he shoots himself. The blond-haired hit man, Niedermann, becomes a fugitive wanted by the authorities at first for the murder of a police officer, starts on a violent rampage across Sweden, seeking a way to reach Lisbeth. Blomqvist find himself working alongside a team of police investigators, and frequently collaborating with his editor, Erika Berger (Lena Endre), to have the story ready for publishing by the time of her trial. They begin following several members of The Section and as they delve deeper Erika starts receiving threatening emails deterring her from publishing the article. Under the instructions of the police, the publication, which is a pieced together account of Lisbeth's life able to prove her innocence, must be delayed long enough to ensure the successful arrest of key members of The Section, placing the Millennium Magazine team at risk. Lisbeth, via a mobile phone smuggled in by her doctor, documents her account of personal mistreatment to Blomqvist, and is transferred to a prison to await her trial. Despite the threats against Millennium, Mikael decides to publish the edition anyway. The film culminates in a series of lengthy trial sequences, cut in parallel to the police arrests of members of The Section, as the evidence of Lisbeth's mistreatment is revealed to the eagerly awaiting world.

What I enjoyed about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and what was clearly missing from Hornets Nest, was the genuine mystery at the heart of the story. The individual plot elements of the mismatched pair were quite interesting and relatively engaging. Here there is nothing remotely surprising and the series concludes in the only logical way possible. We know Lisbeth is a victim of mistreatment and innocent of the crimes, and we know those responsible. All of the suspense arises through a race to complete a publication and resist the powerful forces trying to quash it. It is hardly enough. The moments when Lisbeth and Mikael collaborate their talents on screen together are certainly the best. Since the end of the first film though, rarely have they shared the screen. Blomqvist always seemed to be a step behind Lisbeth in The Girl Who Played With Fire, and now he finds himself fighting to prove her innocence and uncover a vast government conspiracy that stretches to dangerous sectors of the Secret Police. Most of The Section members are grizzly old men, who meet and panic about their impending rexposure in dimly lit offices and boardrooms. We never find them intimidating or remember any of their names, nor do we really care who they are. All we know is that these are the men responsible for keeping Zalachenko arrest-free all these years, and the men trying desperately to have Lisbeth prosecuted. In addition to Lisbeth's passive arc, the woman is trapped for almost the entire film in a confine (a hospital ward followed by a prison cell), and Mikael's active ongoing investigation, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest is riddled with puzzling subplots that add little to this cluttered and convoluted plot.

Despite introducing lots of characters, and cutting actively between the arcs, nothing really happens. Running at nearly two and a half hours, it sure takes its time becoming an engaging thriller. While Lisbeth should be the center of the story, she is so removed from the action that it feels like she is barely involved. She doesn't even adorn her traditional piercings until late in the film. I found the Blomqvist plot to be the most interesting, as he scours through documents to unravel the conspiracy, and begins developing his article. There are several tense tracking sequences in the middle act that show some promise. Writers Jonas Frykberg and Ulf Ryberg have a pretty tough job just streamlining Larsson's dense narrative, but they manage to include the novel's most exciting moments. What isn't so impressive is the way these potentially exciting moments are conveyed. Lacking the activity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the plot here is much too dialogue-heavy (and often woefully so) and completely void of any emotional weight that I would assume the novel successfully builds between the two protagonists. The early assassination sequence was so disengaging that I barely felt even a single burst of interest.

The most exciting scene is perhaps the final climactic fight between Lisbeth and the indestructible and troll-like Neidermann (a ridiculous character), in an abandoned brick factory of all places. It has some genuine tension, and Neidermann who is absent for the better part of the second half, makes his return. For the entire film his story seems unnecessary, and the final pay-off is less than satisfactory. You never know why he is still driven to kill Lisbeth, because he was formerly under the orders of Zalachenko, who is now dead. What manages to maintain our interest is the intriguing story of Lisbeth, and the series of court sequences that slowly reveal her tragic childhood, and point fingers at those responsible, notably naming and shaming The Sections choice psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Teleborian. Again, the performances of Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are both solid, but the plodding narrative, and lack of directorial imagination (a fault you can assign to each of the films) fail to transform this page-turning novel into a memorable screen adaptation. I really hope new life is given to the soon-to-be-released American re-makes. With Fincher's involvement, I am confident a 'great' series is possible.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - 3 1/2 Stars
The Girl Who Played With Fire - 2 Stars

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest - 2 Stars (C-)

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