Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hello Sweden!

We spent a week in Sweden earlier this year, including four nights in Stockholm. It’s not quite on the tourism A-list; everyone assumed we must be going because of family connections or suchlike, but actually we just wanted to see Sweden. Stockholm’s old city, built on a series of linked islands, is quite beautiful, with a waterfront that exhausts your field of vision, and for the most part looking much the same as it might have looked a century ago – the contrast with Toronto’s squandered ambitions is a bit depressing. It’s very easy to walk in – the bridges and paths lead you naturally along, and traffic volume isn’t very high. We had great food, and of course everyone speaks English. If you’ve never been to Europe at all then sure, I’d go to London or Paris or Rome first, but if you have the luck to expand your travel history a bit, it’s well worth a visit.

Visiting Sweden

Compared to our own city or to those others I mentioned, Sweden’s relative lack of diversity is hard to miss. It’s not quite the stuff of stereotypes - everyone isn’t actually blond and tanned and good-looking, but if you picked people at random in the street, there’s a fair chance they might be that. We often got the impression the Swedes weren’t particularly interested in us. I’m not saying at all that they should be, but on many other trips we’ve detected a greater interest in us as visitors, whether because people were genuinely interested, or because they work more consciously at faking it, or because they wanted to scam us. The Swedes were generally polite, but distant. We came away with the impression (which, sure, may just be our own construction) of a country perhaps aware of its limitations, but collectively very clear about what it wants to remain, and of the difficulties attached to that in the age of globalism, and thus drawn toward internal discipline. The fact of retaining its own currency adds to that too.

Some people would put a darker connotation on what I just said, detecting in Sweden a profound malignancy – racism, perversion, corruption. The UK Observer newspaper recently explored the roots of this, theorizing that a “disenchantment” entered the Swedish psyche over the last few decades, and concluding rather startlingly: “the Swedes who worry about the subterranean darkness might actually be on to something. It's just that they're looking in the wrong place. It's not necessarily in the system, or the state, or the police, or under the sea. It may just be in themselves.” Yikes!

The Summer Of Stieg

The Swedish darkness is in vogue now of course, because of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, kicking off with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I should state categorically that our trip to Sweden was in no way a reflection of jumping on a Larsson bandwagon, and it had nothing to do with ABBA nostalgia either). Larsson died in 2004, and the books (along with the movies based on them) ran their course in Sweden a while ago, but they seem to be everywhere else in the world right now. That includes here in our house, where my wife got through the first in near-record time. She’s obviously more restrained than the archetypal Millennium reader though, because instead of moving right on to the second book, she started on Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter and more or less simultaneously on a book about Nelson Mandela. See, this ain’t a house of chimps.

Anyway, it works unusually well, for the world beyond Sweden, that the movies are all lined up and ready to go just as the books become a certified phenomenon (as The Globe and Mail put it, it’s “The Summer of Stieg”!). Of course, you can’t really expect people to deal with those ridiculous subtitles, so Hollywood is already lining up a remake, reportedly to be directed by David Fincher and to star Daniel Craig. I don’t have much interest in reading the books, but I did recently watch the first film, which is now on DVD (the second – The Girl Who Played With Fire – is now winding down in theatres). Several people had told us we’d enjoy it if only because of the pleasure of recognizing bits of Stockholm, but given that this accounts for maybe five seconds of screen time, I’m glad we didn’t put too much weight on that pay-off.

The trilogy revolves around a crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and a younger computer hacker with a murky past, Lisbeth Salander. In the first story, Blomkvist accepts a private commission to investigate a 40-year-old mystery – what happened to a teenage girl who disappeared without a trace? The job comes from her uncle, a wealthy industrialist in his eighties, and perhaps the only decent individual in the extended family (his three brothers, for instance, were all Nazis). Blomkvist makes only modest progress before stalling; Salander – who’s been hacking into his computer and monitoring his progress – emails him an assist; they end up working and sometimes sleeping together.

What’s The Fuss?

The movie is a solid viewing experience, but if you actually can cope with subtitles, it’s already much more like watching Hollywood than like watching something, you know, new. The family is conceived in such melodramatic terms – the key members all live in close proximity on a bleakly beautiful island – that nothing about it carries much broader resonance. The broader indictment of endemic corruption comes through a subplot involving Salander’s sleazy probation officer, but this strand merely consists of a series of easy revulsions and cheap thrills. Salander is already an iconic character, but I couldn’t really see what all the fuss is about – she’s a tough cookie with a distinctive look and a damaged psyche…it’s not really new, and at least as it plays out in the movie, it’s a pretty cartoonish conception. Some reviewers noted the chemistry between the two lead actors, which I frankly couldn’t detect at all. The core plot, once revealed, is a grotesque invention, but one that takes its place alongside a long filmic line of them.

I offer this, of course, solely as my response to the film in isolation, and not to any other aspects of Larsson’s achievement, of which I know nothing. But if indeed there’s more to be learned about the darkness within Sweden, I’m not that confident the other two films in the trilogy (if indeed I bother to watch them) will provide it. And as for the Hollywood remake, enough already. Anyway, it’s a big world, I’ve probably spent as much time on Sweden as it warrants. But I’ll truly savour my vacation memories. And my stash of Ingmar Bergman films.

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