The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

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Anyone who was a fan of "The Da Vinci Code" as a book then sat through the painfully literal film adaptation can appreciate that a hugely successful novel doesn't necessarily translate into a satisfying cinematic experience.

Like "Da Vinci," expectations are sky-high for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." The film, written by Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, is based on Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson's 2005 bestseller, which has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide. (An English translation was released in 2008.) The first installment of his "Millennium" trilogy, the book was published after the writer's sudden death in 2004 at age 50.

The film adaptation was released in Europe last year and is reportedly the most viewed Swedish release in history. In addition, the film and its young female star, Noomi Rapace, won top honors at the Guldbagge, the Swedish equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Okay, so it's big in Sweden. Can the film really live up to such a buildup?

Yes. Director Niels Arden Oplev has crafted a taut thriller that balances the details of a complex murder investigation with powerful character development.

The story follows several parallel paths that later converge. Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) is the patriarch of an embittered family made wealthy by the corporate giant he built. Nearing the end of his life, Henrik is still haunted by the disappearance 40 years earlier of his beloved niece Harriet (Ewa Fröling). He has long suspected that Harriet was killed by a family member, but he could never prove it. In a final attempt to discover the truth, he hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to reopen the case. But before he does so, Henrik has punkish computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) check him out by remotely breaking into his computer.

Within weeks, Blomkvist makes progress, finding a possible link to an unsolved string of ritual serial killings. Meanwhile, Salander continues to monitor Blomkvist's computer and is drawn into the investigation. She solves a key problem and forwards the information to Blomkvist. He tracks her down, and together the two work to solve the case.

The story is really about the relationship between Blomkvist and Salander, even though they don't appear together until halfway through the film. The interplay of these polar opposites makes the film work. Nyqvist plays Blomkvist as the film's moral center, with an unassuming strength and determination.

But the character of Salander—the "girl" in the title—is an original creation brought to vivid life by Rapace, who deserves the accolades she has received so far. The petite Rapace carefully underplays her character's darker impulses behind a hardened mask. When she reveals vulnerability or bits of wry humor, they appear in tiny flashes that disappear so quickly you question whether they were really there at all. Without chewing scenery, her presence electrifies the story.

The two-and-a-half hour film maintains a vigorous pace. Some of the violence—nearly all directed at women—is depicted realistically and is hard to watch. The film has its flaws: a few transitions, especially later in the film, are not very smooth. And Jacob Groth's music is at times overbearing in its attempt to elicit emotions. But overall, the film is a powerful emotional ride that will resonate for days after you leave the theater.

Genre: Drama.
Written by: Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel.
Directed by: Niels Arden Oplev.
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Peter Andersson, Marika Langercrantz, Ewa Fröling.