Director: Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace and Lena Endre
UK Release date: 26 November 2010
Certificate: 15 (147 mins)
There is something rotten in the state of Sweden. The defection of a psychopathic Soviet agent during the 1970s led to a secret society deep within the security forces forming to protect his murderous antics. Only his daughter, aided by a noble journalist and his kind-hearted lawyer sister can bring the organisation down. Meanwhile the daughter’s insane half-brother stalks the highways, merrily murdering and maiming.
While one character remarks that the family tensions of the plot could easily be a Greek tragedy, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest goes easy on the emotional drama, concentrating on tension and investigation. As it turns out, the liberal Swedish government are quite unaware of this deadly secret, and move rapidly to quell the conspiracy. The bad guys, meanwhile, are up to their necks in all sorts of chicanery, from suicide missions through to paedophilia. There is no real attempt to get beneath their motivations: the villains are simply forced along by their evil, and belief in the importance of the secret organisation’s survival.
Painting a noir thriller in such bold colours lends the action an inevitably, while the heroine’s bouts of ill-temper are the only quality that gives definition to her painful history of abuse and torment. On one level, the film operates as a celebration of self-belief and determination, an advocacy of a free press and a vindication of the fundamental goodness of the state. By avoiding complex characterisation, The Girl who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest becomes a rather exciting, but shallow, exercise in moral certainty.
The hero journalist risks his relationship and business by supporting the daughter, only to be vindicated by events: even the climatic court-room scene is clearly signposted, with the panel of judges smiling at the defence’s gradual destruction of the conspiracy that attempted to silence the daughter. Within this, there are scenes of horrendous violence: nail-guns are weapons, sexual assault is a constant threat, bullets blast through skulls, old men commit bloody, public suicide. The impact of the film is largely through this intense visual nastiness.
Of course, being a serious film about the hidden order of control, the atmosphere is self-consciously realistic: the dialogue is not overblown and the mounting paranoia of the heroes is well captured. Yet the stark contrast between the goodies and baddies is childish: it is not enough that the psychiatrist is a willing tool of oppressive forces. He has to be a paedophile with bad manners and a silly beard.
The tension in the film is not just within the plot. It lies in the gap between the moral certainties of the narrative and the savagery of the film-making. Whether the daughter’s punk court-room outfit was supposed to signify some kind of integrity, or whether the director just thought it looked cool is not clear. Equally, the villainous Soviet dissident had a melted face, rather like Dr Doom under his mask. The doctor who protects the heroine is handsome, just the right side of romantic and non-threatening. The journalist is full of integrity, and manages to do a deal with the state that preserves both press freedom and gets him on the nation’s pay-roll.
As a thriller, it thrills, but through a visual ugliness and brutality that undermines the story’s insistence on a clearly defined ‘good’. By relying on such visceral tactics, the cinematography denies the message of the film: rather like the finale, which assures good’s triumph without sullying the good’s hands, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is less concerned with the nuance of character or behaviour, but wants to have both violence and morality at the same time, without considering how the two might be in conflict.