The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and some further thoughts on 2011

01 January 2012

MP here

When David Fincher was announced as the directorof  the English-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one might have recalled his 2007 masterpiece Zodiac and expected - with some excitement - an emphasis on the original's murder mystery elements, on the investigative process by which protagonists Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander hunt the presumed killer of a girl who went missing decades previously. It's disappointing, then, that even if the director does what he can to bring typical urgency, economy and even intensity to this plot strand - the novel's most compelling by some stretch - Steven Zaillian's script retains the structure and inherits the flaws of both Larsson's novel and the previous, Swedish-language version made in 2010. As such, it's quite a redundant adaptation and, in ways, an insulting remake that one might have thought Fincher was above.

The first of Larsson's "Millenium Trilogy" sees Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the ailing head of a multi-industry corporation whose family members somehow remain hostile to one another whilst still living in the close quarters of an isolated island. Vanger wants Blomkvist to investigate the mystery behind his missing great-niece Harriet, whom he believes was murdered by one of his relatives. Blomkvist requires a research assistant, and is recommended Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the cinematic sociopath whose impossibly quirky charm is made explicit against the cartoonish state guardian who serially rapes her - and against whom she connives "anal rape-for-anal rape" revenge. As Blomkvist and Salander near Harriet's killer, their task assumes increasing risks, including an attempt on Mikael's life.

Fincher directs with an almost suitably forensic agitation: jump-cuts, cut-aways and reaction shots are all countered by an impeccably smooth camera movement, and the whole wintry setting is matched by a damp visual palette of ecru, punctuated throughout by beautiful master shots of an urban world of competing lights and unnatural colour. It makes the whole thing watchable enough, but the disappointment that sinks the film is that all the criticisms I have of it can be copied and pasted from my review of its Swedish-language predecessor, which was directed by Niels Arden Oplev:

"From the outset, the novel presents Harriet's mystery as an impossibly perfect crime; any conclusion will be banal, empty or infuriating without a more sinisterly supernatural element, like the one introduced to Laura Palmer's death in Twin Peaks. In this respect, the film does well to trim and reassemble the major points of Blomkvist and Salander's investigation while retaining audience interest."

Additionally: "Because the book's central mystery is bookended by Blomkvist's journalistic pursuit of the tycoon villain Wennerström, it has both a lengthy prologue and necessary coda. In the film, the wrap-up becomes rambling and unnecessary; as a result, the film seems too long."

Further to these problems is the retention of the story's opening third, whose juxtaposition of expository scenes of Salander and Blomkvist, unfolding parallel to one another, draws attention to structural flaws and the essentially flabby conditions for their inclusion.

The performers do what they can. (The remainder of this paragraph contains spoilers.) Mara commits to a performance that bares all in the physical sense but never transcends the emotional mannerism of the character's construction; Lisbeth's final-act sentimentality feels awkward and forced. Craig seems happy to be performing in the absence of the Bond franchise. Stellan Skarsgård - who by coincidence I'd had in mind as Blomkvist when reading Larsson's novel - is suitably hospitable as Henrik's great-nephew and Harriet's brother, and enjoys a tense scene in which he keeps Blomkvist in suspense as to his intentions after the latter has discovered he is the killer.

All of the actors speak English, though Fincher's direction of them is inconsistent and uncomfortable. Plummer does an old-man of nobility routine that transcends a definable accent; Mara's accent is equally undefinable; Skarsgård is made to enunciate polite English even though he's playing a character with whom he shares his own nationality, and awaits (and deserves) his own turn as a Blomkvist; Craig becomes increasingly 007 as the film develops. In short, there remains no reason for the filmmakers to retain the Swedish setting. Doing so only draws attention to the redundancy of their efforts.

At any rate, the project as a whole seems to have been a time-filler for everyone involved, a waste of all their talents. And given the decision to make its ending clean-cut and quite feasibly resistant to extension, one hopes this remains a stand-alone effort and not the first in a trilogy of films that, for better or worse, we've already seen.

Remakes, sequels, adaptations, 3D... and the good, the bad and the ugly

I read as recent as yesterday - though have already forgotten where - that cinemas were plagued once again in 2011 by remakes, sequels and big-budget spectacles demanding an extra quid and a bit for 3D glasses.

Firstly, what's new? Secondly, 2012 will be no different... unless the world ends, in which case none of this matters. But excellent films were made last year, and by the sound of it I've only seen a few of them - as is often the case, I'm happy to catch up with these hard-to-acquire works a year or two down the line. It'll be interesting to see what projects will soon be on the horizon, though, following a year in which "resist", "occupy" and "solidarity" returned to workers' vocabularies once more. We need more than ever, as one explanation fails after another to explain the economic crisis that is destroying our planet and its peoples' lives daily, serious artistic appraisals of life, that are willing to perceive and reflect the world, to shape it artistically, in all its contradictory multi-facetedness.

At any rate, as I posted to Front Row Reviews last week, here are the ten best films released in 2011 that I saw:

1. Archipelago; 2. Le quattro volte; 3. Meek's Cutoff; 4. The Interrupters; 5. Blue Valentine (reviewed by Srini); 6. A Screaming Man; 7. Incendies; 8. The Salt of Life; 9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; 10. Animal Kingdom.

Overall, I saw 379 films last year, including 100 re-watches. 47 were at the cinema.