The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Directed by David Fincher. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Robin Wright and Christopher Plummer. 158 minutes. R

I didn’t want to like this movie. Mostly because it’s so irritating that American audiences need an English-language version of a series of films that have already been made quite wonderfully in Sweden (disclaimer: I have seen all three Swedesh films in the Millennium series, but have not read any of the books), where the story is set, where the actors speak the language because they are from there, and where the author wrote the book and envisioned the story taking place, in response to that particular culture and its social mores. Also, the long-time domestic partner of the author (Stieg Larsson) is getting totally screwed over by his family right now. Under Swedish family and estate law unmarried couples without children have no legal rights with respect to their relationship, and thus cannot inherit from one another (read a review of Eva Gabrielsson’s memoir here).

That being said, the story of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is compelling, and I was curious how Fincher would adapt and interpret the narrative I had become familiar with. I was also drawn in by Daniel Craig, a perfect, spot-on choice for Mikael Blomkvist, and intrigued by the casting of Rooney Mara, a relative unknown, in a role that has become so iconic (Lisbeth Salander), and was performed so brilliantly by Noomi Rapace in the original Swedish-language films. So, I went. And despite myself, I really liked this movie.

I’m not going to go into the plot here, since you can read all about it on various Wikipedia pages all over the internet, if you’re so inclined. Suffice it to say it's fairly complicated and Fincher keeps things going at a reasonable pace with sufficient clarity. The conclusion of the major plotline is quite unsettling, which I think is an understatement. I’m more concerned with the characters, their relationships, and their portrayals.

Lisbeth Salander is fascinating. She is a counter-cultural misfit, something that is apparently quite frowned upon in Swedish society. She’s a punk-rock, bisexual, motorcycle-riding, mildly criminal investigator for a PI firm. She is also a ward of the state, due to mental or emotional instability. Lisbeth is assigned a new, restrictive guardian after her long-time guardian suffers a stroke, and the new guardian sexually exploits her and brutally rapes her. She takes back control by exploiting and sexually and physically assaulting him right back. An interesting choice for a rape victim (more on this below).

Mara was incredible in this role. She played hurt, damaged, strong, caring and smart, all without eyebrows. Her tough-yet-tender portrayal was spot-on. If I had to compare, I might say her portrayal was just slightly better than Noomi Rapace’s in the original Swedish-language version, which feels kind of blasphemous to write. Mara was fierce, burning.

Craig was also great. The Mikael Blomkvist character is apparently an idealized version of Larsson himself, so I take the character with a grain of salt. Craig’s portrayal was quite good, although I got the sense from time to time that he would have really liked to jump from an exploding building at some point or another. Blomkvist is no James Bond, and the raw physicality Craig is capable of was a bit wasted here. But nonetheless, we can’t always have Craig throwing his gorgeous frame around so recklessly, and here, he did the role justice.

The footage of Stockholm featured in the film made me want to go visit there immediately. Europe is so much cooler than North America. I am curious to see how the rest of the movies will play out, particularly the third movie, which details a criminal trial. The Swedish legal system is based on civil, not common, law, and the method of conducting the trial is wholly different from the version we see so often on nightly American network television. It will be interesting to see how the director, if it is indeed Fincher, tells a story about a different kind of legal system to an American audience.

Anyhow, some things I think are lost on American audiences, like for example just how counter-cultural Lisbeth Salander would be in Sweden. Sameness is valued in Sweden. Standing out from the crowd, whether in “good” or “bad” ways, is not. Walking down Queen West in Toronto, it is nothing to see people who look a good deal like Lisbeth Salander. That doesn’t happen in Sweden. Lisbeth Salander would really stand out, and she is treated differently as a result. This tidbit strikes me as important, particularly with respect to the way she is treated by her new guardian - the way she is and lives and presents herself affords her guardian some degree of camouflage for his behaviour, since she will be perceived as strange, less believable, untrustworthy and crazy.

There are a couple things that bother me about this story. One is a fact I just recently mentioned, that Blomkvist is an idealized version of Larsson. This sets the character up as the protagonist in many ways, and leaves Lisbeth Salander, the girl after whom the series is named, as a kind of helper to Blomkvist. But it's her work that ends up saving his ass, in more ways than one.

The other thing that bothers me is Lisbeth Salander. If Blomkvist is an idealized version of Stieg Larsson, Salander is an idealized version of a rape victim. Although she might be damaged by her experience, she manages to still be sexual. She manages to be strong and take back control of the situation through an act of brutality executed on her attacker. I felt this after seeing the original Swedish-language movie as well: Lisbeth’s response to her rape is a very male response. Seeing her lash back out at her attacker in the specific ways she did felt very much like a male fantasy to me, not a response rooted in the lived experiences of women survivors of sexual assault.

I’ve read that the background to Larsson’s desire to write this story, and his lifelong dedication to feminism and speaking out against male violence against women, was due to his own experience witnessing a brutal gang rape of a young girl when he was 15. He apparently never got over it or his own inaction. It’s perfectly sensible then that he writes a character who does all he couldn’t do and likely more. Now, I’m well aware that there may be many women out there would want to do just as Lisbeth did, even women who are rape survivors. But it is really not what they would actually do. Lisbeth’s reaction is fantasy, pure and simple. And I’m not sure how helpful that fantasy is for real life rape survivors or society’s conceptions and expectations of them.

In any case, the movie is good. It’s fairly fast-paced, except for a section in the middle where there’s a lot of sifting through archival materials. It’s got lots of action, interesting characters (even if they aren’t so realistic), a compelling mystery and some romance. And a chick with no eyebrows. What more could a girl want when she goes to the movies? B+

By: Jennifer Simpson

Films I love: Breakfast at Tiffany's, Fargo, Being John Malkovich, Melancholia, Volver, Juno

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