Film Review – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Very early on in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo there’s a scene between said tattoed girl, Lisbeth (a brilliantly minimal performance by Noomi Rapaceand her new male guardian, who has recently been assigned by her parole board. After a few lines from this man, you realise that this film is not going to give you an easy ride.

Based on Stieg Larsson‘s highly successful novel of the same name, and with scenes of strong sexual violence, director Niels Arden Oplev just about stays the right side of what is possible to watch, although there were several scenes where I felt myself recoiling. After last year’s Let the Right One In, Swedish filmmakers are turning a good line in unsettling thrillers.

Writer Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is soon to be jailed for three months after losing a libel action, instigated by the corrupt subject of his investigative journalism. As a result of trial publicity, he is contacted by a wealthy businessman who wishes to investigate the disappearance of his daughter 40 years ago, whom he fears murdered. Computer hacker Lisbeth, remotely accesses Blomkvist’s laptop during the investigation, and ultimately becomes the key to unlocking the mystery of the millionaire’s daughter.

This is a classic thriller, delivering the cuticle-chewing suspense and chills that Hollywood seems unable to get a handle on these days. In part, the tension comes from familiar horror conventions, but most chilling are the individual scenes of unprovoked and misogynistic violence that are inflicted on so many women in this story. It is a tale of female sufferage at the hands of the worst of men, but also of the capacity of some women to endure this and survive.

Nygvist convincingly plays the part of a weary middle-aged man, divorced and seemingly at the end of his career. His rugged appearance is reminiscent of iconic actors such as Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, but he brings a passivity to the character that allows room for the quiet and introverted Lisbeth to dominate the screen with her steely disposition and meditated violence. Ultimately both characters need each other to complete the task at hand and to move beyond the barriers holding them back in their respective lives; for her, a traumatic childhood; for him, the loss of his professional reputation. It’s a refreshingly dark film with a real bite.

Hollywood, don’t even think of trying to remake this, you don’t stand a chance. More Swedish cinema please. 

Stieg Larsson’s other novels, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, have been filmed and are due for release, respectively on 10 September 2010 and 5 November 2010.

Abhishek Bachchan at BAFTA – plus Amitabh, Jaya & Aishwarya came too

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Image: BAFTA/Ed Miller

Humble, honest but assertive, on 5th March Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan took to the stage at BAFTA to discuss his highly successful career and to launch the Tongues on Fire Asian Film Festival. Unexpectedly, he also brought wife Aishwarya Rai, plus his Ma and Pa, Jaya Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood acting legends in their own right.

There were audible gasps of astonishment when the family walked without fanfare into the theatre, and if the largely Brit-Indian audience weren't so occupied cheering and whistling, their jaws would surely have hit the floor. It's not often you sit two rows behind an acting dynasty. With a few extra family members in tow there was a sudden and visible shortage of seating in the front row, but Abhishek did the honours by perching on the armrest next to his mother. You can tell he was brought up right.

In 2000, Bachchan, 33, appeared in his first film Refugee, for which he was nominated for the Filmfare Best Male Debut Award. However, success wasn't so easy for the son of one of India's legendary leading men as his first films did not sell at the box office, leading to some introspection.

Bachchan commented, "In your early twenties you are slightly arrogant. When your film does not do well, you think, 'They [the critics] did not understand it'. When the next film does just as badly you think, 'They didn't get it again' but, the next time millions of people don't like your film, you begin to think, 'Hang on, maybe something's wrong?'".

"After three films that kind of criticism starts to eat away at you. It's like quicksand. I went to my father and said, 'Look, I've made a mistake. I've worked with directors who have only seen success, and I've introduced them to failure.'"

He recounted how his father had told him that he had not brought him up to be a quitter (a cue for more applause from part of the audience), and was told to get back out there to hone his craft.

Bachchan has worked with his father on several occasions, most recently in the highly successful Paa, in which Amitabh plays Auro, the sick and previously abandoned child of Abhishek's young father, Amol. Abhishek said that while it was a great honour to appear next to his father on screen, it was also daunting standing in his shadow:

"On a normal film, you do your work for the day and then you and your co-star are both in the car going home, it is largely silent. When that co-star is your father, he quickly stops being the co-star and becomes your father, telling you what he thinks you did wrong, and what you can improve on."

It was his performance in Yuva that really brought him to light as a serious contender, and three films later he stole the show with his supporting role in Dhoom, reprising the role later in 2006 for Dhoom 2. It was 2007's Guru that was to be the key point in his career. Not only did Bachchan receive much acclaim for his performance but it was significant in proving he could successfully open a movie. However, the box office can be fickle and two films later, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom met with critical, but not box office acclaim in India, faring better overseas.

In Dostana (2008), he played opposite John Abraham and Priyana Chopra in a comedy about two straight guys in Miami, who pretend to be gay to get accommodation in a luxury apartment, both in pursuit of the beautiful girl who rents the other room. The film was a box-office success and he was awarded Best Comic Actor at the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards.

Bachchan said, "it was never our intention to make fun of the gay community, and although we had enormous fun making the film, at no time did we think we were making fun of being gay".

When asked if he would play a gay character in a drama, he responded, "In principle, I have no objection to playing a gay man, but in India we area a very conservative country and I'm not sure if Indian cinema is ready for that yet."

He later retired to the shadows of the stage to allow his mother, Jaya Bachchan, to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Tongues of Fire festival organisers, in recognition of her contribution to cinema over three decades.

It was a grand, yet family-orientated evening, as first the son then the mother spoke of what are now established careers in the annals of Bollywood history. The opening gala of the film festival continued with a dinner at the Park Lane Sheraton Hotel, which alas, I did not see, but I imagine was a grand, royal Indian knees-up.

On a similar note, I would like to thank brother and sister Raj and 'Mango' for the conversation and food in the BAFTA bar beforehand. So long, and thanks for all the chips.

Film Review – Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton has nailed it like the March Hare throwing a tea-cup, with his spectacularly entertaining vision of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The narrative is a classic hero’s tale and not overcomplicated beyond that, while the heart of the film lies in wondrously playful performances by a cast of familiar acting talent.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now 19 years old, and her previous adventure in Wonderland is a distant childhood memory. While at her own surprise party to be engaged to a characteristically chinless aristocrat (I wonder what Prince Charles made of that at the Royal Premiere?!), Alice is distracted by a rabbit running through the grand gardens of the mansion. Feeling the call of something greater than her present circumstances, she abandons the party and follows the rabbit, falling down the familar hole in the ground that leads to Wonderland.

Essentially this is a twist on the original novel in that the familiar situations and characters are there, but they have to be rediscovered for a different purpose by Alice on the threshold of womanhood, rather than Alice the child. It is Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey, with Alice having to pass through the labyrinthine world to seize the prize. She gives in to the pull of her considerable imagination and follows the distant rhythm of the White Rabbit’s ticking pocketwatch, resisting the expectations and putdowns of the comically corseted world of her family. 

I was so surprised not only to like the film, but to have thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not a huge fan of fantasy and have never read Carroll’s novel, but the casting makes up for any perceived shortfall in adherence to the source. Johnny Depp naturally gets honourable mention for his Mad Hatter of multiple personalities; a softly spoken Wonka-esque performance puntuated by occasional campness with thunderclaps of aggressive Scottishness. Unfortunately for Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, she is completely overshadowed by her sister the tempestuous Red Queen, played by Helena Bonham-Carter. Surely a barnstorming resurrection of Queenie from BBC TV’s Blackadder II, the Red Queen is coy and coquettish, but prone to execute anyone on a whim. There is a sub-text of rivalry and jealousy in the relationship between the two, as when the Red Queen rants against her kindlier sister for getting everything that she desired of their parents. It is a poignant moment when the Red Queen speaks from a broken heart that, “perhaps it is better to be feared, than loved”.

Alan Rickman drolls as the wise, shisha smoking caterpillar Absolum (smoking, in a children’s film? Slyly done Mr Burton!) whose few cryptic words guide Alice towards her self-determination. My favourite would be Stephen Fry as the vaporous Cheshire Cat, slinking and evaporating where required with the cunning of a Member of Parliament. I must admit that even Barbara Windsor was unrecognisable in voicing the feisty Dormouse. Christopher Lee voices the Jabberwocky with booming malevolence, and his part in the final showdown carries faint echoes of The Lord of the Rings battle sequences.

The visual effects blend effortlessly in Wonderland, partly because we suspend disbelief so readily for a fantasy film and of course, due to the skill of the artists. The thought struck me that the 3D effects were considerably smoother than in Avatar, though this may be down to the Dolby 3D system rather than the more common RealD system.

I’ve not read the novel, so Burton’s version may be a vast deviation from its literary origins, but this does not matter. It’s terrific fun. If you still haven’t found the way out of your own rabbit hole, don’t be late for this appointment. The clock is ticking.