Adapting a modern classic into a film is always a daunting task. When that classic has already been adapted into a film, in another language, the level of criticism is even higher. At the preview screening I attended of David Fincher’s adaptation/remake/whatever of Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, Stephen Basil-Jones from Sony spoke beforehand about how proud of the film the studio is. And after seeing it, they have every right to be - it defies all expectations and concerns, and stands up as a significant and thrilling achievement in its own right.
Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara step into the shoes of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist and enigmatic computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. Craig is terrific, and gives Blomkvist the perfect everyman quality, always a little out of place in his surroundings, flawed in his relationships with pretty much everyone, and a little bumbling. He has a warmth that makes him instantly sympathetic.
The job faced by Rooney Mara, however, was twice as daunting, particularly following the revolutionary performance by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish original. It would be fair to say that Mara is just as revolutionary, in a completely different way - her Lisbeth is a quieter, more repressed creation, a bubbling fury always threatening to erupt, the antithesis to Rapace’s explosive, arse-kicking fireball. There really is no comparison - both actresses performances are so subtly different, they offer just as valid and exciting interpretation of the most iconic character from Larsson’s trilogy.
The supporting cast are equally terrific, especially Christopher Plumber, having a ball as patriarch Henrik Vagner, and Stellan Skasgard as his playboy nephew Martin Vagner.
‘Girl’ sees director Fincher in the kind of playful, anarchic mood we haven’t seen since ‘Fight Club’. Everything about this film snaps with energy and spunk, from its thundering opening credits to its cheeky climax. You definitely get the sense that Fincher is letting himself off the hook a bit, after the beautiful restraint he has shown of late with ‘The Social Network’ (2010) and ‘Zodiac’ (2007). It only continues to assert him as one of the greatest directors working today.
The screenplay by Oscar-winner Steven Zaillian is a perfect compliment to Fincher’s distinctive visual style, with snappy dialogue more akin to a black comedy than a weighty, serious police procedural. At almost the same length as the original, this ‘Girl’ moves at a cracking pace I always found so lacking in the other film, and even though it edges towards the three-hour mark, I found myself not wanting it to end, so fascinating was this world and its characters.
The setting is wisely kept to Sweden, rather than relocating it to the U.S., and everyone has adopted the Swedish accent apart from Craig. This doesn’t jar at all though, only adding to Blomkvist’s position as an outsider. In a way, it’s his version of Mara’s punk hair, piercings and tattoos, positioning them both as two outcasts against the rest of the world. There’s also no shirking on the violence, with some of the most disturbing sequences we’ve seen on the screen in years. It is never gratuitous though, and presented with the same fantastic detachment Fincher lent to the murder scenes in ‘Zodiac’ - Fincher is not here to judge these characters or their actions, but is here as an observer. Whatever you think about them is up to you.
‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ sees director David Fincher in the kind of playful, anarchic mood we haven’t seen since ‘Fight Club’.
Special mention also has to go to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have followed their Oscar-winning work on ‘The Social Network’ with an even more ambitious score. Rather than running the film together with a strong central theme, the score concocts the atmosphere and mood, walking hand-in-hand with Jeff Cronenweth’s stunning cinematography. They also collaborate with Karen O on a killer cover of Led Zeppelin's ‘Immigrants Song’. You can read more on the score here.
There have been a few complaints that the film doesn’t delve deep enough into Lisbeth’s psychology or past, and that it feels like a missed opportunity. From the very beginning though, you can see that Fincher is using this first film as a set-up for the rest of the trilogy. In essence, this first film is little more than a terrific murder-mystery, a chance for us to get introduced to Salander and Blomkvist, with a definite promise of more to come. Our final image of Lisbeth, disappearing off into the snowy night on her motorcycle, is a momentary glimpse of just how far we have to go with her. Fincher has her in his sights, and we can surely expect, if Sony do the right thing and allow Fincher to complete the trilogy, that his attention will definitely be on his enigmatic heroine.
Even so, what he has offered us up is a truly spectacular film. It might not have the cinematic gravitas of ‘The Social Network’, but it’s clear that's not what this film is about. As we have come to expect from him, David Fincher has, once again, kicked the cinema in the teeth and changed the game for everyone around him. While the Swedish version was weighed down by a stuffy reverence to Larsson’s book, this American take on ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is electric and irreverent, and all the better for it, and probably the best thing Larsson’s classic book could have asked for.