Monday, 26 December 2011

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)' review:

Having hated the Swedish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" - a series of unspeakably nasty TV movies - I wasn't looking forward to spending another 2 1/2 hours in that disturbing world courtesy of David Fincher's new English language version of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'. I never doubted Fincher's take would be slicker, more artful and, as a consequence, a more gripping experience than its European forbear, but I couldn't imagine taking any pleasure in the company of vengeful, anti-social computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (now played by Rooney Mara) and her boring investigative journalist friend Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig).

The 2009 film played like a boring sub-Agartha Christie detective story with bagfuls of added sadism, as we watch see our heroine subjected to every kind of injustice, and are afterwards expected to relish her "eye for an eye" take on brutal sexual violence. Yet this version at least understands that two rapes don't make a right.

Despite Fincher's reputation as a cold hearted bastard behind the movie camera, his version of the story (as scripted by Steven Zaillian) is a little more humane and, as a result, infinitely more enjoyable even if it retains all of the original's most unpalatable moments. It helps that this Lisbeth doesn't spend the entire film looking either indifferent or angry at the world, as Noomi Rapace's did. She is every bit as cold, sullen, bad-ass and capable (in a fight and as an ace investigator) when she needs to be, living in an equally gritty version of modern Sweden, but Mara brings out more of the character's vulnerability and fear, playing her as a tragic figure - a lifelong victim of violence at the hands of sadistic men.

With Mara's nuanced Salander even showing some affection and warmth, as well as contempt for manfolk, we can see her as more than just a leather clad angel of vengeance, every bit as "evil" as those she despises. She is a person who we feel for: whose triumphs we enjoy and whose relationships we can invest in. She is in fact a much more interesting character than the story she inhabits - a motorcycle riding punk with a photographic memory and a past she'd rather forget.

Whilst there are stomach turningly nasty sequences, mostly of a sexual nature, less emphasis is placed on violence in this version and, when Salander is transgressive, we relate that more to her troubled back-story and precarious mental health, instead of being encouraged to view her as an anti-hero and potential outlet for fantasies of "fuck you" nihilism. Mara enjoys good on-screen chemistry with Craig - who makes for an almost equally engaging Blomkvist - whilst the presence of Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson and Steven Berkoff, in the ranks of the nefarious family of aristocratic former Nazis, gives the dialogue some heft.

The book's tired murder mystery storyline - with Blomkvist invited to a remote island by an old patriarch in order to investigate the 40 year-old disappearance of a young girl - retains some crippling structural problems: Blomkvist and Salander don't meet until halfway through, whilst three separate plot threads never really connect satisfactorily. Yet this rote whodunit benefits from the overall improvement in cast, atmosphere and some typically inventive directorial choices. Sound is especially key to its success, as aided by a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (fresh from Fincher's 'The Social Network'), this is consistently tense where the other film was just boring.

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' is out now in the UK, rated '18' by the BBFC.

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