Exciting, but its Swedish setting is a distraction

‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ grabs a tame three out of six possible stars

The fact that you’re about to read a review of an American remake of a Swedish thriller based on a Swedish novel is a testimony to the undeniable attraction and power of this crime saga, aka The Millennium trilogy. Everyone who has seen Stieg Larsson’s novels about ‘the girl who played with fire’ hit the world’s bookstores after conquering Scandinavia in 2006 will know that I’m describing a full-blown literary phenomenon. Its adaptation by filmmakers promises to be comparable to those of James Bond and Harry Potter.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first in the trilogy and the first of three to be directed by Fincher. The director of Fight Club, Se7en, and most recently The Social Network obviously knows his metier but something about this one jars. Whether it’s the fact that all of Stockholm unaccountably speaks English, or that his version has grown up in the shadow of its model – an excellent work – is hard to say. Possibly both.

To be sure, holding a candle to Noomi Rapace’s lead performance as Lisbeth Salander was never going to be easy (not surprisingly, Rapace is currently undergoing Hollywood beta-testing in Sherlock Holmes 2). Rooney Mara (The Social Network) does her best, gets close to jaw-dropping in glimpses, but is mostly closer to simply outrageous. Her mock Swedish cadence distracts more than it convinces

Salander, however, is not introduced until our other main character, the financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist (a wooden Craig), has been offered a healthy stipend for an eerie job: to solve the presumed murder of a teenage girl, Harriet, who went missing decades before during a family celebration. It’s Harriet’s ageing uncle, a wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Plummer), who can’t stand not knowing her fate anymore. He still lives on the family-owned island from which Harriet disappeared one day while the bridge was blocked by an auto-accident.

Blomkvist is basically faced with a ‘locked room mystery’. He is persuaded to relocate to the scene of the crime that he must share with Henrik’s notoriously suspicious brothers. As Henrik tells him: “You will be investigating thieves, misers, bullies – the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet: my family.” He doesn’t mention their Nazi and sado-misogynist tendencies.

Isolated in a draughty cabin sans phone connection with the cold wind howling outside, Blomkvist decides he needs a research assistant. A lawyer suggests Salander, a very unconventional sleuth, pierced and tattooed to Gothic perfection, who investigates people via her laptop. The girl’s a hacker from hell. She’s also well-endowed with various autistic qualities and, being a victim of sexual abuse, a part-time feminist avenger too.

Once reopened by this unusual duo, the stone-cold case starts to give, and various very unsettling truths seem to lurk around every corner. Verses from Leviticus – who memorises those anymore? – are reflected in the goriest police photos (“It’s better to look at what I’m about to show you on an empty stomach.”). It’s all as darkly postmodern, R-rated and noir as imaginable.

You’ll get the thrills you pay for but my feeling is there’s something inalienably Swedish about the franchise that is not developed very gracefully here. Relying on the original screenplay (as I see it), screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) has produced a passable script but no character dazzles rhetorically – or steals the show otherwise, really.

Although not destined to become a modern classic, this will no doubt excite many.

You don’t need me to explain the attraction of Larsson’s morbidity – but you may need Sigmund Freud.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (15)
*** (out of 6)

Dir: David Fincher; US thriller, 2011, 158 mins; Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Stellan Skarsgard

Premiered December 21

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