Gilbey on Film: I'm a Girl refusenik

Why I won't be watching - or reading - any of the Stieg Larsson trilogy.

A commercially daring marketing strategy has been announced this week by the distributor Momentum Pictures. In effect, it's a cinematic loss-leader.

In an effort to whip up interest in its forthcoming thriller The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, which is released on 26 November, Momentum is putting on free double-bills of the preceding instalments in the Stieg Larsson-adapted "Millenium" trilogy (that's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire). Forty-one cinemas in the UK will screen the two films this Sunday; all you need to do is claim your tickets, climb into your motorcycle leathers, hop on your bike and burn rubber in the direction of your nearest participating cinema.

Well, I say all that about leather and motorbikes but I am exactly the sort of Girl refusenik at whom this unusual promotion is aimed, so what would I know? Through a mixture of cunning and ineptitude, I have managed to miss out on the series -- can we call it a phenomenon, or has that word now gone the way of "icon"? -- in both literary and cinematic form. There was definitely a week earlier this year when I was considering reading the first book or watching the first film, but then a pair of witty writers rained on that idea before it had even become a fully-fledged plan.

First, Nora Ephron -- sparkly on the page, even if her directing (You've Got Mail, It's Complicated) lacks that same fizz -- wrote a knock-out pastiche of the series, entitled "The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut", in the New Yorker. Even my Larsson-resistant eyes could recognise it was knock-out, merely from having watched the trailer for the first movie, and from all the time-consuming sneering I've done at commuters reading Larsson's books on trains and buses. Ephron nailed the exaggerated pomposity and forced cool that anyone will recognise from even a passing acquaintance with a potboiler:

Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father you had once deliberately set on fire and then years later split open the head of with an axe. Salander opened the door a crack and spent several paragraphs trying to decide whether to let Blomkvist in. Many italic thoughts flew through her mind. Go away. Perhaps. So what. Etc...

That alone would have been ample justification for my avoidance of all things Girl-related. Then a few weeks later, Will Self piled in after Ephron in this most amusing literary scrum. In this very magazine, he summarised Larsson's series thus: "[A] lot of tedious Swedes cutting each other to pieces." One distinguished comic writer steering me away from the Stieg Larsson section in the bookshop, or from the cinema showing a Girl movie, would have been quite enough: I'm easily swayed. But two? The damage was done.

There is undoubtedly a contrarian thrill to finding oneself out of step with a popular craze; the rise of Dan Brown has done easily as much good for half the world's feelings of superiority as it has done harm to the remaining half's vocabulary. And in a world that makes increasingly unrealistic demands on our time, there is something empowering about resisting those entertainments of which simply everyone is partaking. (I hadn't read a word of J K Rowling or seen more than one of the Harry Potter films before I was called upon to review the fifth movie for the NS. In preparation, I received a crash course from my children, but what I saw only confirmed that I had not been missing much. It's government-regulated fantasy really, isn't it? Fantasy with the corners sanded down, the fantastic sucked out.)

On-demand viewing has made that level of assertion easier; the dominance of the boxed-set is also proof that we all like to regulate our interests and obsessions, gorging on an entire season in a day or two if we so desire.

The problem Momentum is trying to address with the free Girl giveaway is to stem the fatigue that must inevitably set in among audiences when the three parts of a trilogy are released in such a short space of time (the first Girl opened here in August). At least the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and James Bond films typically have a year or two between each outing. But I wonder if the Girl brand isn't irrevocably tainted among the uninitiated. I doubt I'll be setting aside five hours on a Sunday to submit to a marketing campaign.

That said, I love the idea of the double-bill making a return in the form of a primer. Multiplexes might show a brace of past Palme d'Or winners to whet our appetites for the upcoming Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Or a couple of movies set in hotels to get us in the mood for Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, which takes place largely in the Chateau Marmont.

The double-bill is a luxury in which too few cinemas indulge these days. I'm a sucker for them. But when it comes to Momentum's generous offer, I may just be washing my motorcycle leathers that day.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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