Thursday, 29 December 2011

FILM REVIEW: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Watching David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a bit like those learning to write books you get given when you’re two years old: you trace the faded grey shapes with a pen to get the fully fledged letters that become the words that make the sentence. Hey presto, you’re writing! But you didn’t do it on your own. It’s also like having a serial case of déjà vu, or turning on an eco friendly lightbulb that starts off dim and gets brighter and brighter. What I’m getting at is, as the film unfolds the story of Steig Larsson’s first of the Millennium trilogy of novels came flooding back to me: “ahhh I remember this bit” being a constant thought bubble over my head. Which then led to the slightly hollow feeling of, yes this all very admirable but what is the point?

It’s been a few years since I saw the Swedish adaptation of the book in the cinema but I was pulled in by the general buzz around the series, and the great reviews (incidentally one of the premiere shows of the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was at the 2009 Leeds Film Festival, where fans of the book literally queued around the block to try and squeeze into the sold out screening). What makes the film so special is the classic murder mystery storyline, which is thanks to Larsson, the author of the source material making it such a provocative and morbidly fascinating case. Elderly businessman Henrik Wagner seeks the help of shamed journalist Mikael Blomkvist to help solve the 40 year old suspected murder case of his niece Harriet. She vanished one day on the island of Hedestad when she was 16, and her body was never found. Henrik believes one of his family members is responsible for her death – a family wracked with alcoholism, abuse and Nazism. Simultaneous to this we have Lisbeth Salander, the unconventional heroine of the books who is a social outcast with an horrific backstory full of rape, murder and abuse but an ingenious hacker and researcher, and she teams up with Blomkvist to find out the truth about Harriet. There’s secondary storylines as well, to do with Blomkvist’s libel case and defamation of business mogul Wennerstrom that sets up the following books in the trilogy, but here, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is all about the Vagner’s estranged and malignant family and the eventual hunt for a serial killer. This story drives the film, and it’s a perfect match for Fincher who entranced with (the meh, overrated) Se7en and (the brilliant) Zodiac.

I don’t want to spend the entirety of the review comparing old with the new, but having watched and thoroughly enjoyed the original, it felt a little superfluous watching it all over again. Yes I had forgotten a lot of the detail from the story (even who the killer was!) but it all came back to me – ala this brightening lightbulb – and because each director was following a story, there was nothing new here. Yes, scenes were shot slightly differently, but we’re all essentially going to the same place. The only difference with Fincher is the ending: instead of tracking down an alive Harriet in Australia by way of her cousin Anita, Fincher chooses to make Anita Harriet, posing under another name so she would never have to face her family again. It’s interesting, but again, doesn’t add that much to the story, and I can see die-hard Larsson fans getting their feathers ruffled about it. It’s also interesting, as this film was supposed to be more faithful to the book, where the Swedish version may have veered off track slightly. It does include the final scene where Lisbeth, heading to see Mikael with a Christmas present of an expensive leather jacket sees him with his editor Erika, and knocked back, throws the present away and drives off. I wasn’t sure whether that was in the book or not – obviously it is – as it seemed tacked on to me, a side of Lisbeth that isn’t in-keeping with her tough, spiky outer shell and abhorrence of men.

This is where Fincher’s Tattoo does excel: Rooney Mara. Her portrayal of damaged but rock hard and razor sharp Lisbeth is a fully committed and brave performance, considering this is her first major role on camera. She was committed to getting the part as well, impressing Fincher enough to hire her and she delivers the goods here. Compared to Noomi Rapace’s depiction which is ultra tough, Mara is like a scrappy waif, who’s completely in control but yet looks like she hasn’t eaten a good meal in weeks (she is constantly snacking on Happy Meals, coffee and cigarettes). She also brings a vulnerability to the character – as mentioned the last scene buying a Christmas present, but also her continued visits to her former guardian who is left paralysed and mute by a stroke, but whose kindness has stuck with Lisbeth. Decency it seems, goes a long way to softening that wall around her, and she develops a fierce loyalty and dedication to those who show her such compassion. The shock of Blomkvist’s happiness with Erika breaks her bubble in this case: she was going to declare her love for him, but instead the wall is back up and she doesn’t want to let him in again. Despite of course the horrific things which happen to her in this movie – and Fincher does not dumb down any of the text – Mara is cool, deadpan (and probably unknowingly) funny, and an unflinching expert at getting what she wants. She is a huge presence on the screen, and Mara more than puts her own stamp on the character.

She also blows Daniel Craig out of the water as well, who is competent here and experienced enough to keep up with the frenetic energy of Mara, but he is overshadowed by her (he did have a few silver fox moments though… dear Lord, what’s happening to me?!). The support cast were excellent though – all the Vagners perfectly unhinged, entrenched in dark secrets. The only miscast was Joely Richardson, who didn’t seem to fit in as the victim Harriet – they should have gone for someone less well recognised.

A couple of other honourable mentions which embolden the film: the script, from veteran Steven Zaillian, is rich in menace and graphic description – some excellent lines that stay with you. It’s also really open – every member of the family, each event surrounding Harriet's disappearance – it’s all done very heavily so the audience know exactly what’s going on. That’s not to say it’s paint by numbers (though there was a lot of Daniel Craig marking reports in yellow highlighter pen: “LOOK – VERY IMPORTANT!” and a slightly clumsy moment where Lisbeth goes on Wikipedia to look Wennerstorm up.) but it does make it very clear what’s happening, and that’s a positive as the Swedish version was a lot less cooperative with the audience – you had to concentrate to keep up and remember who everyone was and how they were connected. It’s not a fault, I’m just pointing out Fincher’s Tattoo is much easier to follow, so the reveal of the killer – and his motives – has more impact. Also the music is extraordinary and will stay in your head for days, though the garish title sequence (think the Rubber Man from American Horror Story having a debauched orgy with other rubbery creatures) was a bit much. Usually title/credit sequences set up the story in the background, or cleverly whip graphics around the scene to give you an idea of the tone and events of the film ahead. This was just like having its own theme tune – very slick, very stylised, but not sure what he was getting at. I felt like I was about to start watching a TV show, not a film. Still, all very Fincher. (the trailer for this film, blaring the same opening song, was surely one of the best of the year.)

A laudable remake, but a remake all the same. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a stunning watch and just imagine if you haven’t read the book or seen the original Swedish film – perfection. But to others, like me, it's enjoyable and searing, but we’ve been here before. It's a shame Fincher didn't get there first, but judging by the success of this at the Box Office, he's probably attracted many new fans to the books so that's a success. Will the other two films follow, or will he turn elsewhere next? He may be compelled to, and they’ll, of course, be ace – it’s Fincher. But again we ask ourselves, what really is the point?

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