158 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Like a lot of movie fans, I greeted with a big dose of cynicism the news that Hollywood was remaking the Swedish thriller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
That film, which introduced to the world actress Nomi Rapace as the gloriously twisted investigator/hacker Lisbeth Salander, was more than adequate. Why remake it for a bunch of ignoramuses too thick to read subtitles?
Well, I was wrong. The American “Girl…” is the equal of the Swedish version in most regards, and in its technical production vastly superior. That’s because it was directed by David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “The Social Network,” “Zodiac”), an exacting filmmaker who composes and lights every scene for maximum visual impact. (Don’t forget, the three Swedish films based on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy were made for television and suffered somewhat from limited production values.)
The tale remains essentially the same (with some minor variations) and the overall effect — a queasy blend of serial killer thriller, unrepentant male piggishness and offbeat relationship flick — very similar to the original.
The plot, for those who’ve spent the last few years living under a rock, involves disgraced Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who rebounds from a libel suit by accepting a private investigative gig from aged industrial Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Forty years earlier Henrik’s favorite grandniece, Harriet, went missing. Henrik has long suspected she was murdered by another member of his filthy rich and wildly dysfunctional family. Before he dies, he wants Blomkvist to provide some answers.
Blomkvist’s ally in the investigation is Lisbeth Salander, an antisocial and possibly mentally ill young woman with tremendous skills as a researcher and computer hacker. Lisbeth, a ward of the state, has her own problems with a court-appointed “guardian” who preys on her sexually. As vile as this individual (Yorick van Wageningen) is, Lisbeth’s vengeance almost makes him sympathetic.
As with the Swedish film, Fancher’s version sets its sights primarily on two elements. First there’s the complex and highly satisfying mystery that sets the plot in motion. And then there’s the movie’s portrait of the wraithlike Lisbeth, one of society’s true outsiders.
Rapace’s performance was so widely praised that going in one almost feels sorry for American actress Rooney Mara. But rather than recreating Rapace’s performance Mara creates her own Lisbeth, giving her new colors and shadings. (Nobody tells a stage actress she shouldn’t attempt Juliet or Lady Macbeth because it’s been done before; ditto for Lisbeth Salander, a character actresses may be fighting to portray for decades to come.)
Part of Mara’s success lies with her physical performance. With her eyebrows shaved, her features studded with metal and her deathly white face framed by a shapeless blob of black hair, Rooney’s Lisbeth looks like some sort of alien creature.
And if Rapace’s concept of the character was that of a borderline autistic ill at ease with human company, Mara’s is more firmly rooted in plain old mental illness.
This Lisbeth remains a loner, technophile and bisexual with a deep distrust of institutions and anyone who would invade her privacy (ironic, given that she’s so good at invading others’ privacy).
But this Lisbeth is a curiously fragile creation, both physically and emotionally. Mara, Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian take a big gamble by giving her a core of neediness beneath the suspicious/defiant attitude; there was very little of that in Rapace’s performance. This Lisbeth, in fact, develops a genuine crush on the older Blomkvist. It’s kinda heartbreaking.
The other players are uniformly excellent. Craig is enough of an actor that he doesn’t seem particularly hunky here. Stellan Skarsgard sucks us in as the most affable member of the Vanger clan. Robin Wright is Blomkvist’s editor and long-time lover. Joely Richardson is a Vanger granddaughter who has rejected her family and relocated to London. Plummer gives us yet another memorable character.
If this “Girl…” is a success, we presumably will get remakes of the other two volumes in the trilogy. I can’t say I’m all that eager…the subsequent books were much inferior to …Dragon Tattoo.
But of it means spending more time with Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, I’ll be there.
| Robert W.Butler