Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A Swedish-language murder-mystery thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first film based on the exceptionally popular series of books by the late author Stieg Larsson. Released under its original title, Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, to great box office success in Scandinavia in the spring of 2009, it is receiving a brief theatrical run in art houses the United States in 2010. The film stars Mikael Nyqvist as investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist, who is hired by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the disappearance of his niece Harriet some 40 years previously. Meanwhile, punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) has been hired by another company to monitor Mikael’s activity, and contacts Mikael when she solves some of the puzzles that Mikael could not; working together, the unlikely pair find out more about the Vanger family than Henrik intended, involving generations of corruption and murder.

The music for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is by 62-year old Danish composer Jacob Groth, who has been working solidly on Scandinavian films since the early 1990s, but has never been the subject of any international exposure prior to his work on this film. It never ceases to amaze me just how much great film music is being written by composers no-one has heard of, for films no-one sees outside of their linguistic region, but which would sit comfortably in any mainstream Hollywood project you would care to mention. This score is a perfect example; performed by the Slovak Symphony Orchestra, it is exciting when it needs to be exciting, moving when it needs to be moving, sinister when it needs to be sinister, and has a sound and quality which indicates that Groth should have been discovered by the world at large a long time ago.

The score is generally orchestral, with prudent use of electronics to help illustrate the contemporary setting. It’s small-scale in terms of the number of performers, but appropriate in tone, and offers a generally engaging listening experience throughout. The cues that will appeal most to listeners are the more lyrical ones, which more often than not deal with the relationships between the characters rather than the progression of the plot. The highlight cue of the score is “For Harriet”, a warm orchestral theme with a beautiful string refrain which gets a major statement during the film’s end credits roll, and acts as a tender reminder that, for all its revelations elsewhere, at its core the film is about the enduring familial love.

Much of the rest of Groth’s score tends to be generally tense and textural, with cues such as the opening “Warning Cry” filled with insistent string lines and portentous brass chords accompanied by ticking, nervous electronic pulses. Other cues, such as “Evil Men”, “Dark Mind” and the excellent “Secrets”, have a welcome hint of Howard Shore about them, and are especially reminiscent of scores such as The Silence of the Lambs, with their brooding, bass-heavy string motifs, lilting woodwinds, and pseudo-romantic melodies that combine aesthetic attractiveness with an overarching feeling of darkness and oppression. It seems a little odd to describe these cues as beautiful, considering the emotions they represent in the context of the film, but their morbid darkness and sense of sorrow and loss is very appealing, especially to anyone who appreciates the style of scoring that composers like Shore, or Marco Beltrami, bring to the table.

Occasionally the score bursts into a brief salvo of orchestral intensity, especially the expansive flourishes at the end of “Warning Cry” and “Evil Men” which are made all the more forceful by the inclusion of determined snare drum licks and thrusting rhythms. The more conventional action cues – “Moving”, “Heavy Burden” and “Endings” – are dramatic, again pitting more prominent percussive and electronic elements against constantly shifting orchestral tones. Elsewhere, “Mother and Daughter” has an ethereal, dream-like music box melody underpinned by dreamy synth textures, underscoring a pivotal scene where a revelation about the past of one of the main characters is revealed, while the “Rape” cue – which underscores one of the most disturbingly brutal sexual assault sequences I have ever seen committed to film – is appropriately disturbing, with its growling synth textures and unforgiving percussion element.

There’s even a song, “Would Anybody Die For Me”, written and performed by Danish singer Misen Larsen, which actually appears during the end credits of the sequel to this film, Flickan Som Lekte Med Elden (The Girl Who Played With Fire), but which for some reason has been included on this album. It’s actually a very good Goth-rock effort, in a similar vein to songs by artists like Evanescence or Within Temptation, and which appeal greatly to fans of their work.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not a score which will set the world alight, nor will it win many awards, nor will it suddenly generate legions of Jacob Groth fans around the world. What it does do, however, is open horizons, and further illustrate that, for all the mainstream Hollywood musical disappointments we have suffered in recent years, great music is still being written out there, worlds away from the film music mainstream, and which is more often than not better than the music being written for Hollywood productions of the same type. The creativity and stylishness of Groth’s score is very appealing, and will make a nice addition to the collection of those who appreciate dark, moody orchestral thriller scores.

Rating: ***½

Buy the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Warning Cry (4:15)
  • Evil Men (4:48)
  • Mother and Daughter (2:02)
  • Moving (2:56)
  • For Harriet (5:50)
  • Dark Mind (1:59)
  • The Start (3:32)
  • Rape (1:43)
  • Secrets (4:36)
  • Heavy Burden (2:39)
  • Would Anybody Die For Me (written and performed by Misen Larsen) (4:03)
  • Endings (4:38)
  • Salander (2:10)

Running Time: 45 minutes 11 seconds

Milan Music 36487-6 (2009)

Music composed by Jacob Groth. Conducted by Allan Wilson. Performed by the Slovak Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Jacob Groth and Rasmus Hansen. Recorded and mixed by Peter Fuchs. Album produced by Jacob Groth.

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