Director: David Fincher
Writer: Steven Zaillian, Stieg Larsson (novel)
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgård
Admittedly, I have never understood the popularity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The novel was dubbed sensationally as Sweden’s answer to War and Peace,to which it bears absolutely no resemblance, and, even withstanding such hyperbole, was a supreme disappointment. It is a readable thriller but is deeply flawed stylistically and structurally. I was not interested enough to read the sequels, or to see the 2009 Swedish adaptation.
However, the first trailer for David Fincher’s American version was tantalising, with its super slick editing and darkly foreboding imagery, backed by the glorious cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who were responsible for the film’s score, and featuring Karen O on vocals. The song is used again during the opening credits, which are instantly energising and get the adrenaline flowing, much as the trailer did. They look like an oily corruption of a James Bond title sequence. Unfortunately, despite not having technically started, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is never as good again.
Following the opening titles, we are introduced to the parallel storylines of the two main characters, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who has just lost a high profile libel case against a leading industrialist, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who is struggling with the financial restrictions and sexual abuse of a state-appointed guardian (Yorick van Wageningen). Salander is a very modern heroine, a brilliant hacker with intriguing psychological issues, goth-punk styling and sexual ambivalence to boot – the fantastist core of the Millennium Trilogy. Mara looks the part and gives the well established character an ice-cold edge.
Blomkvist is comparatively uninteresting, necessarily so to create a sense of balance. He is not particularly likeable, has no qualms about sleeping with married women and, at the beginning of the film, has largely brought about his own downfall. Craig is perfectly suited to play him, bland enough to allow other characters to take centre stage, but charismatic when he needs to be. He is also the only actor not to bother with a Swedish accent, barring a few incomprehensible lines, which is a curiosity rather than a problem. When promised a solution to the professional and financial problems brought about by his court case, Blomkvist accepts a proposal from an ageing but wealthy businessman, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to try and solve the decades-old mystery of his niece’s murder. As if to taunt him, the killer continues to send Henrik pressed wild flowers on his birthday, just as his niece did when she was alive.
The film follows the plot of the novel exactly, with the exception of a pragmatic change to the ending. However, this a problem rather than a virtue. The central mystery is uninteresting and its solution unsurprising. It relies heavily on coincidence and good fortune, to the extent that the investigative work is merely a sideshow leading to an undeveloped tangent. Various members of the Vanger family are introduced at the beginning but few are relevant to the plot and only one is a credible suspect; most get less screen time than Blomkvist’s stray cat. As in the novel, the tacked-on ending is wholly unnecessary; it eliminates any sense of climax, and extends an already lengthy runtime.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo lacks the necessary mystery to work as one, but only sporadically tries to be anything else. It should have been the hard and fast feel-bad movie the trailer promised, but it ends up as little more than a processional reformulation of the source material. Its strengths lie in exploitation; the brutal encounter between Salander and her guardian is difficult to watch but sickeningly powerful, while the sequence in which the murderer is identified is darkly comic and extremely good fun. Even these scenes, excellent though they are, are marred by a discomforting contrast in tone. And in comparison, the bulk of the film is either too serious or too restrained. Loyalty to the novel is a problem; adaptation allows leeway for changes, and if Fincher genuinely wanted to achieve anything, he should have insisted on them. The film is more polished than the novel, but suffers from many of the same problems.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not exactly a franchise in need of reinvigorating but, under Fincher’s direction, this still feels like a missed opportunity. It is technically accomplished in almost every sense, notably the cinematography, the acting and the score, but it lacks imagination, ambition and emotion. It is not gritty enough, or bold enough. At least it produced an exceptional song.