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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – David Fincher’s skill beats the challenge of form


Lisbeth Salander


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – David Fincher

Like buses, you wait for ages for a film with a charismatic, independent, strong female character: then two come along at once: first Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl in The Killing I & II), and Lisbeth Salander (First Noomi Rapace, now Rooney Mara) in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Their similarities are as interesting as their differences: crucially, though utterly different characters, both are genuinely strong with a palpable vulnerability – not tough ‘female men’. Gråbøl has an advantage not given to Mara: initially 20 (K1) hours of film to establish, develop and deepen Sarah Lund then a further 10 hours (K2) to take her further. David Fincher stretches his feature length to 158 minutes but is still forced to sacrifice desirable character development to necessary plot.

This inescapable compromise suggests that with strong, character-driven dramas in the cinema, sequels are likely to improve on the original as they can assume some familiarity with a character they want to develop. Good examples are: The Godfather Part II and French Connection II, with Michael Corleone and Popeye Doyle.

Fincher does have the compensation that he knows there are two more Salander films to come in the late Stig Larssen’s world-wide best-selling Millennium TrilogyTGWTDT is therefore a triumph of artistry over form. With superb editing and a lean, sinewy screenplay (Steven Zaillian) Fincher meticulously makes Larssen’s intricate plot accessible to us with a rigorous economy that aids the dramatic pace and tension his narrative needs. True we know Lisbeth better at the end of the book than we do Fincher’s movie but within the limitations of film and thanks to a superb performance from Rooney Mara, Lisbeth fascinates and intrigues, leaving us wanting to know more of her story and to watch more of her implacable, uncompromising investigatory style; her fiercely passionate defence of the spirit of what is just rather than complacent contentment with conventional adherence to the letter of the law.

Investigative journalist and joint editor of radical Magazine ‘Millennium’ Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has lost a court battle with a Business tycoon he has rightly exposed but cannot prove is crooked. He is approached by the wealthy patriarch of another business dynasty, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer)to investigate the possible murder of Vanger’s niece (Hannah) at a family gathering some 40 years before. Ostensibly writing Vanger’s biography, Blomkvist’s real task is to solve the mystery of Hannah’s disappearance and confirm or disprove Vanger’s suspicions of a family member having been responsible.

The journalist’s reluctance is overcome by Vanger’s promise to provide the proof against the tycoon Blomkvist had been unable to present in court. He soon realises he needs help and chooses Lisbeth Salander after seeing her impossibly detailed report on him which Vanger had commissioned before offering him the job. Just as Vanger had understood what would motivate Blomkvist, the journalist reads Salander correctly and asks her to help him catch a killer of women.

Even the limited sketch of Salander Fincher has time to offer intrigues and engages us: after trying to kill her father at the age of 12 she has been supervised in the community by a state guardian. When her long-time guardian Palmgren, who likes her and maintains a liberal monitoring regime suffers a stroke she is allocated a new one, Bjurman, who soon shows that he will exploit his power over her in return for perverted sexual favours. Constant abuse and exploitation has made Lisbeth personally wary and socially introverted. However she has a savant’s eidetic memory and a brilliant mind applied to a profound understanding of computers, used to produce reports like the one on Blomkvist based on illegal hacking of confidential systems.

Assembling this array of skills, Lisbeth cleverly and courageously avenges her brutal sexual treatment at the hands of Bjurman in a way that permanently neutralises his power over her. We witness her revenge with a relish that is visceral and instinctive rather than rational or moral.

Working together, Salander and Blomkvist uncover many disreputable and reprehensible secrets of the Vanger family many of whom, rightly, feel threatened by the revelations and respond accordingly. Despite an ongoing sexual relationship, known and accepted by her husband, with his fellow Millennium editor Erika Berger (Robin Wright), Mikael and Lisbeth’s spiky but totally frank, honest relationship extends to the bedroom. Salander decisively beds Blomkvist simply because she wants to have sex with him. No fool, Blomkvist complies in love-making that expresses an equality of initiative and desire with no hint of submissiveness or conventional gender roles.

The outcome of Blomkvist and Salander’s investigation puts both in mortal danger and the resolution of this key thread in the story is exciting and satisfying even for those of us who know the book. The mystery resolved, Fincher then sets us up for the continuation of Salander and Blomkvist’s relationship as found in Larssen’s second book The Girl Who Played With Fire.

Fincher had an impossible task, with three critical dramatic objectives to achieve in 158 minutes: introduce and establish one of the most charismatic and challenging female characters in current fiction; with Salander at its centre, tell the complex first story in Larssen’s trilogy; and finally set up an organic transition of these characters towards the second book’s narrative.

I don’t know a Director who could have done a better job – albeit the compromise that it is and must be; compared to the benefits of cumulative detail, description and access to the inner life of characters that the novel form offers and film does not.

For me, Fincher takes on the challenge that Tomas Alfredson ducked in the over-praised Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Alfredson made plot and character little more than pastiche, choosing to dwell on visual tone and atmosphere. In contrast the tone of Fincher’s film arises naturally from what interesting characters do when caught up in a complex drama we can understand. Thus TGWTDT has all the pace and urgency TTSP lacked; characters that have been solidly established; and a visual tone that is a satisfying result of telling the story; rather than the dominant artistic purpose in the director’s approach.

From its pounding, visually fascinating opening credits to its plot resolution and enticement towards the next stage of the Salander/Blomkvist narrative, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo delivers with excitement, tension, suspense and surprise. Its only sins are of omission and they are imposed by the medium, not from any artistic deficiency other than a pragmatic but unimportant liberty with the plot and a pretty chaotic but not jarring, unevenness and inconsistency of accents. Performances are strong in depth especially the hypnotic Mara whose Lisbeth is not necessarily better than Noomi Rapace’s, but simply different and totally personal.

A good ‘un. Should satisfy newcomers and Larssen devotees alike. I just hope Fincher/Mara et al have a 3 movie deal – because Fincher has set himself up to benefit from 7 hours instead of 2½ with which to make the second and third movies better and better.

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