The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

First published in S&S Feb 2012

Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Synopsis: Sweden, 2006. Discredited in court by industrialist Wennerström, middle-aged journalist Mikael Blomkvist asks sometime lover Erika to replace him as publisher of Millennium magazine. Declared clean by troubled 23-year-old hacker Lisbeth Salander in a report secretly commissioned by Henrik Vanger (long-retired CEO of Sweden’s most powerful family business), Blomkvist is hired to investigate the 1966 disappearance (and presumed murder) of Henrik’s grandniece Harriet from the Vangers’ island home, Hemestad. Meanwhile, Salander’s new legal guardian Bjurman blackmails her into abusive sex, until she films him raping her and blackmails him back. Realising that Harriet had been gathering evidence of serial murders, Blomkvist turns to Salander for assistance in identifying the killer of women, and they become lovers.

Learning, through photographic evidence and intuition, that Harriet was probably killed by her brother Martin (now CEO of Vanger Corporation), Blomkvist goes to Martin’s house. Martin confesses to continuing a spate of rapes and murders begun by his father Gottfried, but denies killing Harriet. About to kill Blomkvist, Martin is attacked by Salander and dies in his crashed car just before Salander can shoot him. Blomkvist finds Harriet living in London under the assumed identity of her long dead cousin Anita. Harriet had killed abusive father Gottfried in 1965 and fled Martin a year later. Blomkvist brings new evidence (furnished by Salander) of illegal conduct against Wennerström. Undercover in Zurich, Salander empties Wennerström’s offshore accounts. Wennerström is assassinated by criminal associates. Salander returns to  Blovkvist at Christmas, only to see him arm-in-arm with Erika.

Review: “You can’t try anyone for what they did 35 years ago.”

So complains journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) towards the end of David Fincher’s long-awaited The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, summarising the sense of helpless belatedness that pervades not only the film’s narrative, but also its origins. For it features a very cold case in a cold climate, as Blomkvist investigates the disappearance forty years earlier of a teenaged girl; and it is adapted (by Steven Zallian) from Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novel, not only published posthumously but originally written in part to exorcise the author’s guilt for failing to intervene in 1969 when, aged 15, he witnessed the gang-rape of a teenager named Lisbeth. In the novel, Lisbeth has been reimagined as Lisbeth Salander, a punkish, no-nonsense 23-year-old hacker who reacts with violent effectiveness against any abuse perpetrated upon her by men – and so The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a tale of rape-revenge, as well as a political thriller exposing Sweden’s hidden history of fascism (another of Larsson’s favourite subjects as an investigative journalist).

Fincher’s film also belongs to that most belated (and bemoaned) of genres, the Hollywood remake  – yet if Fincher failed to get in there first, at least his version improves markedly upon Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 Swedish-language original which, despite Noomi Rapace turning heroine Salander into an emo feminist icon, had a movie-of-the-week dullness to its mise-en-scène, far too much clumsy exposition, and an end sequence that was overlong, oversentimental, and entirely out of keeping with the tone of what had preceded. Fincher, on the other hand, who has proven form when it comes to moody psycho-thrillers (Se7en, Zodiac), turns Larsson’s literary materials into thumping, pumping cinema. If the enigmatic Citizen Kane prologue, with pressed flowers substituting for the rosebud, does not grab the attention, then the opening credits certainly will, as a petrol-dripping kaleidoscope of bodies, flowers, insects, keyboards and dragons is syncopated along to Trent Reznor and Karen O’s pounding resurrection of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song (the cover version rehearsing the film’s thematic concern with the interchange of past and present). In all its impressionistic stylisation, this mimics the title sequence to a James Bond film, but is less titillating and more disturbing, making it the perfect introduction to protagonist Blomkvist, played by the current Bond but very different in character. For, in a neat inversion of 007′s gender norms, this new man is outclassed, dominated and ultimately saved by Salander (played with brittle vulnerability by Rooney Mara). Fincher lets Larsson’s story unfold with great verve, breathless economy and the odd tweak to the novel’s narrative, along the way fixing all the problems in Oplev’s earlier film, and shifting the emphases of the film’s final sequences for a Christmas close (perfectly timed for the film’s late December release date in the US and UK) that is far more satisfying in its bittersweet impact.

Unlike, say, Matt Reeves’ Let Me In (2010), Fincher and Zallian keep their remake in Sweden, staying true to their source but also creating the occasional jarring note. It is an acceptable artifice that Swedish characters should all speak English, but less acceptable that some actors have (Stellan Skarsgård), or at least put on (Mara), a Swedish accent, when others (notably Craig) do not. Still, by shifting the plot from 2002 to 2006 (in fact the publication year of Larsson’s novel), so that its epilogue now coincides with the 2007 Credit Crunch, Fincher’s film highlights the continuities that link the sins of the past to our own contemporary problems. For here, patriarchy is a family business whose corrupt practises and licensed entitlements are passed from father to son in a succession which, if left unchecked, will always lead to horrific abuse, whether sexual or economic. This is a finely honed genre thriller, but also continues Fincher’s preoccupation with the persistence of age-old urges in the modern world.

Anton Bitel