Director Daniel Alfredson’s attempt to take the helm on part two, The Girl Who Played With Fire, was undeniably disappointing. Lacking the seductively menacing atmosphere of its predecessor and juggling disparate and uneven plot threads it suffered from every classic trapping of the second in a trilogy. Only thanks to Noomi Rapace’s tooth and nail Lisbeth Salander and an nerve-racking and very bloody cliff-hanger does our intrigue in ‘The Girl’ remain unshaken going into this concluding part.
The great news for Hornet’s Nest is Alfredson avoids, for the most part, those pitfalls of the second film in his finale. For the first time since Dragon Tattoo does a film so unceasingly reel us in with such unbridled and brooding intrigue. Whereas Played With Fire floundered without thrust, here Alfredson shows he understands the dramatic dynamics of crescendo. Steadily tensions are ratcheted, deepening and intensifying, spiralling in with an engrossing centripetal force toward Lisbeth’s trial.
The greatest strength of the series has always been the closeness with which it is willing to hold its cards to its chest: It seizes every opportunity to hold us in the dark that little bit longer, offering only a slither of a suggestion where others would reveal too much. This absolute refusal to patronise its audience and a genuine appreciation for the seduction of mystery is what has really made these films such a phenomena and Hornet’s Nest crowns the series in this respect. In a film essentially about revelations and public exposal, it never shies from an excuse to deepen and complicate itself. The more cards it holds and hides the more curious we become, but nowhere more curious than in its Ace of Spades, Lisbeth Salander.
However throughout the film our hero is confined and restrained, whether in a hospital bed, police custody or under scrutiny in the courtroom, she is boxed out of the action. Rather Lisbeth acts as the brooding core around which the action circumvents; the events escalating like children running sticks faster and faster against the bars of a caged animal waiting to pounce. Rapace’s performance seems to emanate that slow-burning tension that pervades the entire film.
The effect of confining your protagonist for the final act of your story obviously results in Hornet’s Nest being considerably less action-orientated than its predecessors, but this ultimately works to the film’s greater strengths. Rapace further explores Lisbeth’s vulnerabilities and hardiness through a seething stoic resilience. It’s an intensely claustrophobic concentration that ensures Lisbeth remains as utterly compelling as she was when we first met her in Dragon Tattoo. Nyqvist’s often overshadowed performance as the vigorous journalist Mikael is able to take centre stage and should widen admiration of his bedrock performance throughout the series, and even the quiet strength of Lena Endre’s Millenium editor Erika is for the first time really allowed to come to the fore.
Most of all however Larsson’s court-room conclusion plays to Alfredson’s strength. Rather than the clunky tv-style action set-pieces that punctured Played With Fire, Alfredson holds-back, accumulating tension and releasing it teasingly in short-sharp punches never taking his eye from the drama and destination.
The problem with the previous entry was that Alfredson didn’t really know how to handle the action dramatically; here he knows that it’s the accrual of drama and suspense that proves the satisfaction, but while he masterfully captivates his audience in the build-up and even spools out his revelations with gratifying measure he still fails to deliver the final punch to punctuate it.
The ultimate flaw is antagonist Niederman. After two hours of rivetingly observing Salander, building her strength and working out, she almost threatens to burst from her captivity in her brooding silences. But to then have her showdown be with a lumbering, second rate henchman from a Chuck Norris movie – even if he is her half-brother – is a crushing anti-climax. I get the feeling we are supposed to view him as akin to Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men but the reality is he’s far more reminiscent of the lug in Hot Fuzz, “Yarp!” Niederman is such a characterless goon, outrageously undeveloped and uninteresting that it stings with great shame that a film with such expertly woven tension should end with such a trite sideshow.
However Alfredson knows that it’s the allure of secrets and shadows that have made The Millennium Series such a success and despite its lacklustre climax Hornet’s Nest recaptures some of that intrigue and suspense that made the original so engrossing. It’s just as well then that Alfredson knows that expertly wrangled mystery and tension can still be rewarding without an epic climax. It’s just a shame that we couldn’t have both.