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Lost in Translation from the Swedish

by Ann Morrow on December 21, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher

The Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had the great good fortune of a lead actress who was unanimously considered to be the perfect counterpart to the ferocious anti-heroine of Stieg Larsson’s internationally best-selling Millennium trilogy. As computer-hacker-turned-vigilante Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace was as dangerous, complex, sexy, and original as the young woman who blazes a path of wrathful violence in Larsson’s crime novels. It was a hard act to follow, indeed, as was the film’s freezing-yet-fetid atmosphere of lurking menace and lawlessness. For no reason whatsoever except to remake the film with American stars and no subtitles, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been reinterpreted by director David Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian.

Though Fincher’s Lisbeth, Rooney Mara, doesn’t make a single misstep, especially when it comes to Lisbeth’s premeditated acts of violence, she simply does not exude the same smoldering explosiveness and aura of mystery as Rapace. There’s something ethereal rather than sexual about Mara’s punk outcast, and her ghostly prettiness seems at odds with the toughness that defines the character. Daniel Craig is effective, if not quite compelling, as Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist recently disgraced by a libel suit. Mikael crosses paths with Lisander when he is hired by an aging industrialist, Henrik Vangar (Christopher Plummer), to find his beloved niece, believed murdered 40 years ago.

The Vangar family with its Nazi-party affiliations and questionable business ethics stands in for the whole of Sweden as a corrupt entity, and as Mikael digs into the family’s past, Lisbeth confronts her own oppression, at the hands of a court-appointed guardian who is the worst kind of male misogynist pig. Basically a police procedural, with handwritten clues and telltale photographs from long ago, the story gets its intensity from its characters—the most vivid portrayal this time is Plummer’s—whether good, bad, or intriguingly in-between, and how they react to the horrific circumstances that engulf them. Zaillian’s script is swifter and crisper than the original, and Fincher (Seven), a consummate craftsman when it comes to unsavory and shocking behaviors, does not disappoint in depicting the more gruesome plot twists. The treacherous, Nordic ambience by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and the keening, sinister music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (following their Oscar-winning work on Fincher’s The Social Network) contribute to a mood of simmering despair and fear.

And yet for all its masterly efficiency, the film is dulled by an almost clinical detachment and simplified motivations. Larsson’s Lisbeth is a vengeful feminist angel who instinctually gravitates to Mikael’s gentle humanity. Under Fincher’s hands, however, justice seems less important than self-preservation, with retribution rather than righteousness as the ultimate reward. In this respect, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has not only lost its Scandinavian identity, but its soul.