So striking and unique was Swedish actress Noomi Rapace’s portrayal of 21st century anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander in the original 2009 film that director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian already had their work cut out adapting author Stieg Larsson’s complex first book of his Millennium trilogy as an English-language film. The plot is so complex with its plethora of characters and emotions and deals with so many issues, including Nazism, serial murder, rape, torture and twisted family liaisons that it acts as both a cinematic dream and a hindrance if done incorrectly. Therefore, it’s a relief that Fincher and Zaillian not only appreciated that the central theme to refer everything to is the Salander journey and the breaking down of her defiant resolve, but also that the film could not be set anywhere else but in Sweden again, purely for the inherent cultural quality and mystique that the story desperately requires.
Disgraced magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig taking on the Michael Nyqvist part) is hired by wealthy industrialist Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to discover what happened to his missing grandniece – presumed dead after forty years. Blomkvist learns that he has been investigated by a brilliant computer hacker – also hired by Vanger, the anti-social punk Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) who joins forces with Blomkvist on the search. The pair forms an unusual bond and uncovers dark and ugly family secrets and corporate corruption.
Fincher’s pedigree in gritty film noir thrillers (Zodiac, Se7en, Panic Room etc) is not necessarily apparent at first from the opening title sequence, a nod to Bond (and his 007 star, Craig, perhaps), but an eye-catching, fetish-like monochrome affair of writhing bodies trapped in oily gook, accompanied by the nerve-shredding and pumping cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The opener means business and suggests the story to be Salander’s and her fight against tyranny.
What accompanies this chic and mesmerising title sequence is a near-identical palette and chilling tone, as to the original film, without any Hollywood gloss, particularly as people will not necessarily come to this version afresh. As in Fincher’s Se7en and Fight Club, Jeff Cronenweth’s fluid interior cinematography sets the mood with its low-key lighting and shadowy depth, accentuating the whole Gothic flair and unease of the story’s environment, while bringing a heightened iciness and desolation to certain scenes with daylight blue temperature. Fincher certainly manages to still stamp his mark on the subject matter while retaining the alien and hostile environment of the original.
But where the film’s slick look matches and even surpasses expectations, Zaillian – who claimed he’d never seen the original – still had to decipher Larsson’s lengthy written word, and naturally because of the involved nature of the book and necessary elements to relay, the result for Fincher fans is a less succinct style of film than should be expected.
That said the lead performance does not disappoint and is surprising; if you wondered whether Mara is a fitting English-speaking substitute, she is. Her physical transformation, complete with dyed blonde eyebrows and chopped hair is spectacular. Her mental state as Salander is equally focused and wildly effective. Mara’s recent Oscar buzz is more than justified, as she ploughs through the injustice and transcends the story’s knottier moments like a biking avenging angel. Somewhat out of context with the darker, lurid secrets that the whole story represents, Mara confronts Salander’s notorious rape scene and subsequent revenge with full and startling aplomb, giving Salander more of a ‘damaged’ soul and worthy cause than Rapace’s emo-styled thug.
Embracing that gritty determination he and his screen characters are renowned for, Craig’s Blomkvist is equally compelling and dogged in his quest, perhaps almost too methodical in fact – like a Bond figure: Nyqvist’s 2009 portrayal of the embattled hack is more debilitated and at times, something of a closed emotional book, shown in the Swedish actor’s pitted, rugged and haunted features. In turn, the sexual attraction between Salander and Blomkvist feels less of an enigma in this film, and more overly simplified, as merely two social ‘outcasts’ finding solace from their work. Still, the nature of the story is such that the narrative naturally gives way to Salander’s domination, and Craig is generous in giving the Mara performance as much breathing power as possible.
As a standalone, dark and twisted thriller, the Fincher-Zaillian partnership does not fail to capture the viewer’s attention, and the story’s unsavoury familiar mystery is heightened by the strong performances of its dynamic leads – Mara, unquestionably. Like recent English adaptations of Scandinavian tales, such as Matt Reeves’s of Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Let The Right One In, Let Me In (2010), fans can expect the translation to clarify elements of the characters’ psyches, even if the action needs no further explanation. For Fincher purists, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is lumpier in plot fluidity than his other, sleeker work, but his call sign is still very much present and he uses the Swedish environment to interpret foreboding events to full effect.