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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit