Movie Review: “Swedes and Scots and Sadists…Oh My”

This past weekend I watched two movies that were seemingly more different than any two movies could be. They did have things in common. Both films were intriguing and entertaining in their own way and at their heart is a similar theme: reclaiming and uncovering the “true” past.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), a Swedish film based on last summer’s “Oh my god you have to read this” 800 page beach book- which in the spirit of full disclosure I never read because it appeared uninteresting and typical to me- is a kind of The Da Vinci Code with sadists and serial killers. Unlike the underwhelming and trite The Da Vinci Code, Girl doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It’s a straight up mystery-thriller complete with twists, turns, blood, torture, convenient romances, and protagonists with complicated pasts.

The plot focuses on the characters Lisbeth Salander (played with a brilliantly subtle ferocity by Noomi Rapace), a troubled computer genius, and Mikael Blomkvist (an equally brilliant Michael Niqvist), an investigative journalist who was recently sentenced to prison for slandering an important Swedish businessman. The two become entangled (insert obvious romantic innuendo here) while searching through a 40-year old cold case that involves a billionaire’s niece who went missing at the family compound and is presumed murdered.

It would be hard to delve any deeper into the narrative without revealing any spoilers. In the era of 15-and-a-half minute movie trailers that reveal everything but the point of making yet another crappy movie, I can sympathize. But in the case of Girl, it is less important to guess who dunnit and more important to enjoy the darker edges of this Swedish mystery. Unlike Hollywood thrillers, this movie does not shy away from the ambiguities that come with solving murders, nor does it shy away from leaving parts of the mystery mysterious. While the case of the missing niece is solved – complete with the mandatory cheesy 11th hour captivity of a protagonist by an antagonist who keeps him/her alive just long enough to reveal all of the details of their crime – the mysteries of Lisbeth and Mikael’s lives are left open. They search through old photographs, newspapers, and archives for the niece’s killer (just like all good historians), while the audience chews their proverbial – or real for that matter – nails – but never reclaim their own horrors. This keeps the movie feeling fresh and ambivalent; something I have no doubt the American version of this story will destroy.

On the other hand, there is nothing ambivalent about the blatant nationalist celebration throughout the The Stone of Destiny (2008). The film tells the “true” story of four Scottish kids who stole the Stone of Scone (a stone from the seat of the former kings of Scotland) from Westminster Abbey in the 1950s. The film portrays them as trying to reclaim what they believe to be their rightful history from the nasty, imperialist, self-serving British (a common theme to British history, American history, Canadian history, African diaspora history, and Caribbean history etc.), the four students (charmingly embodied by Charlie Cox, Kate Mara, Stephen McCole and Ciaron Kelly) plan and execute a kind of Laurel and Hardy version of a high powered heist. The stone weighs over 600 pounds; guards are constantly changing their shifts; beautiful women and grumpy old misers arm the information booth and comedy ensues.

While it would be easy to be cynical about this film – which truthfully is a painfully eager celebration of Scottish nationalism – and to reject it out of hand for embodying all that historians are supposed to question nationalist projects, and their place in history (the tagline of this film begs for this: “A heist 600 years in the making”), you can’t. Know why? Because it is funny, you are rooting for the protagonists, the music is fun, and you do tear up just a little bit when the bagpipes play longingly while the main protagonist proclaims that their names aren’t important, they are the “sons of Scotland.” I know that nationalism can be dangerous, and it can also be full of false histories (thank you Eric Hobsbawm and Ian McKay), lighten up! It’s only a movie.

Katharine Bausch is a PhD candidate in the history department at York University. She is studying the relationship between African American and white American culture in the civil rights era.

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