We need to talk about Lisbeth

In my heart of hearts, I knew it. There may be many girls with dragon tattoos, but there is only one Lisbeth Salander. David Fincher’s take on men who hate women is too slick and too self-assured to get anywhere close to the 2009 Swedish original, directed by Niels Arden Oplev. While I cannot recommend parts two and three of the original, the first part is pretty damn good entertainment sprinkled with bits of character studies. We meet a determined but far from bullet-proof journalist who cannot believe the story he has been dragged into. Michael Nyqvist gets his role just right: He knows what he wants to do next, but is far from sure whether it’s wise to do so. I always had the sense that with him, he kept thriving on the difficulties. His dogged determination seems to melt the snow around him. There are many moments where you can see him think, and then act. Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist is too sure about himself; he is never really scared, never really surprised and never really drunk. He isn’t even too fazed when someone tries to shoot him in the woods. He is the wrong choice for this role.

Of course, the Swedish movie will always have the advantage of having introduced us to Lisbeth Salander, on of the most intriguing characters in popular movie-making in a long time. I don’t know how, but Noomi Rapace has exactly nailed the character (now there’s a painful pun) and I pitied Rooney Mara as soon as her name was up for Fincher’s movie. Rapace plays her damaged and in self-chosen isolation, but highly self-reliant; I’ve never been able to see the character behind the role, which is a very good thing. With Mara, I felt I was looking at a goth runaway with an attitude problem and random bouts of Asperger’s. I could see the clockwork behind her acting, and it made the scenes where she brings Wennerström down less credible. The original Salander was surprised at herself that she could feel something akin to love for Blomkvist; the other Salander’s love for him comes to her like an afterthought and finally only stops short of a soppy Christmassy gesture.

Comparisons aside, I also had a number of problems with Fincher’s movie itself. The first three minutes play like Lord Voldemort’s idea of a Prodigy video. As the story unfolded, I could not shake the feeling that this must have felt like watching Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake: the same camera angles, the same lines, the same plot points – heck, there were moments where I was almost sure that the two Salanders and the two Blomkvists inhabited the very same hut, shooting on alternate days. The only good thing they left out were the scenes where little Mikael has Harriet Vanger babysit him.  There are some other changes, but they are insignificant – except, except… they changed the ending. Remember the scene where the original Blomkvist stands in full sunlight for the very first time in the movie, approaching a woman who has her back to the camera whose hair is ablaze with sunlight? Remember what happens then? They cut it. They cut that and turned the ending around. That, and giving Lisbeth that soppy street urchin ending. And while we’re at it: It is a huge, huge mistake to let the characters talk English with a Swedish accent. Once I know the main characters are Swedish, I can suspend disbelief and think of them as Swedes, even if they use proper English – that’s especially true for a movie that engenders a whole lot of disbelief.

I don’t know why I felt that Fincher’s version is longer than Oplev’s. Maybe it’s slower because the atmosphere is so much more subdued. I know a certain drabness and coolness is Fincher’s trademark, and it is essential to Se7en and Zodiac, but here, it sabotages the feel of the whole movie. Blomkvist and Salander are not cool characters – they may just behave like normal people, but they are churning with stuff. They need to be, because otherwise that cold Swedish winter and the shock-frozen Vanger family will get to them.

2 thoughts on “We need to talk about Lisbeth

  1. thirithch February 24, 2012 / 4:29 pm

    Watching the Swedish version tonight – and Fincher’s probably next week. Will have to revisit your post once I’ve seen both… Thanks for posting this!

  2. thirithch March 8, 2012 / 7:24 am

    Okay, back from having seen Fincher’s version. I definitely agree with you on some things – the Swedish accents don’t bother me too much, but they stand out, especially since Craig drops his half an hour into the movie. I also wasn’t too happy with the Wannerström epilogue, but mostly because it’s clear where it’ll end up and doesn’t deliver much beyond payback, so we’re just watching the plot unwind itself at too slow a pace. I see the appeal in either Salander – Rooney’s is more vulnerable, but also more pop-psychologised, whereas Rapace’s is a force of nature. I like the former better because she’s more relatable, but it does change her into a more common character. (In some ways the S&M-meets-James Bond intro of Fincher’s version fits Rapace’s Salander better than Rooney’s.)
    I have to say I enjoyed Craig’s Blomkvist better than Nyqvist’s (doesn’t that guy sound like cough medicine you’d buy at Ikea?). Perhaps it’s that I relate better to someone who likes cats, but I think it’s mainly that I bought Craig’s reactions and emotions more than his Swedish predecessor’s. What I definitely prefer about the US version is the script: in the Swedish version, I felt that there were a number of narrative shortcuts leading to plotholes of the “Why did he do X? How did he know Y? Why doesn’t he even consider Z?” kind, which I (wrongly) attributed to the novel. In Fincher’s version, most of these are addressed, briefly and elegantly, making the plot work more smoothly and credibly.
    All in all, though, while going to the cinema to see TGwtDT was an enjoyable night out, I’d definitely group the film more with Fincher’s Panic Room or The Game. The film isn’t consistently different enough to feel essential, or indeed a case of Americans not wanting to read subtitles. In fact, I’m not sure the material lends itself to very different interpretations. I expected Fincher to bring more to the table, but as it is I’d consider his film well crafted and entertaining but also a bit of an irrelevant trifle.

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