Despite the familiarity of the source material, the Hollywood adaptation of bestselling novel ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ is one of the year’s must-watch films.
As expected, director David Fincher, famous for darkly grimy fare such as ‘Zodiac’, ‘Se7en’ and ‘Fight Club’, was the perfect fit for Stieg Larsson’s bleak Swedish whodunit and his deft touch is visible throughout.
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One example is the simply stunning opening credit sequence. Scored to Trent Reznor’s pounding cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, we see naked bodies covered in oil (or perhaps PVC) splashing against each other before setting on fire and giving birth to a giant crow.
It’s a mental mini-masterwork in its own right and reminded us of a Goth version of the always enjoyable ‘Bond’ pre-credit scenes.
After this, we are into the action proper. Daniel Craig is Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist who begins the film with his reputation in tatters and bank account emptied after writing a correct but unsubstantiated story on evil financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom.
Despite the pleas of casual girlfriend Erika (Robin Wright), his editor at Millennium Magazine, he accepts an assignment from Henrik (Christopher Plummer) - the head of the super-rich industrialist Vanger clan – after he is promised hefty payment and the evidence to take down Wennerstrom.
On the surface Mikael is researching a biography, but is actually investigating the disappearance of Henrik’s troubled 16-year-old niece back in 1966. The suspects are Henrik’s dodgy family, several of whom are ex-Nazis.
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During Mikael’s investigation we are also introduced to Rooney Mara’s incredible Lisbeth Salander, the anti-social, possibly psychotic private investigator.
Noomi Rapace made the character her own in the solid 2009 Swedish version, but Mara’s version is possibly even more powerful.
Utterly unrecognisable behind the tattoos, piercings and punk hair-cut, she is cold-yet-emotionally vulnerable and always on the verge of physical brutality. The actress literally bares all in this brave performance, and will surely get an Oscar nomination.
Mara’s most memorable scenes are a horrific rape sequence and its gruesome retribution, but she is also electric in the character’s quieter moments – playing chess with her old guardian or researching the Vanger case when she is eventually hired by Mikael as his assistant.
Craig’s is a less showy role, but it’s a testament to the actor that we are only reminded of 007 in the finale, when he is trussed up and threatened with torture in a basement.
His one misstep is the accent – which starts off with a Scandinavian twang before settling into straight-forward British throughout. This jars with the rest of the cast – who stay moderately accented throughout.
The supporting talent – made up of an international cast of character actors like Plummer, Stellan Skarsgaard and Steven Berkoff – is first rate.
Part of Fincher’s skill as a director – first seen in the very different ‘Social Network’ last year - is to make scenes that essentially consist of characters typing on computers compelling.
Reznor’s pulsating electronic/metal score and Fincher’s sublime swooping camerawork give an often static story pace and verve.
The book's labyrinthine plot is also swiftly hammered home through mercifully pacey exposition so that – despite coming in at around 2 hours 40 minutes – the film only sags right at the end, after the main plot strands are nicely tied up.
As always with Fincher’s work, the production design – here evoking murky cottages and gleaming Ikea-style flats – is also the best in the business.
In short, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is an incredibly slick but very adult drama made by the best technician in Hollywood.
Nonetheless, those expecting the searing, anarchic social commentary of ‘Fight Club’, or the ‘Citizen Kane’-esque character drama of ‘The Social Network’ might be slightly disappointed. Despite the skill of its execution, Larrson’s source material is still a straightforward genre piece.
One final thing. The story has contemporary resonance thanks to the current Leveson inquiry into journalistic ethics - specifically the phone hacking at the News of the World.
Bizarrely, ‘Dragon Tattoo’ champions illegal phone and email interceptions carried out by private investigators on behalf of journalists.
‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' will be released nationwide on 26 December. Certificate: 18.
Watch the trailer now: