Sweden has a long, proud history of contributing to the arts; these days, much of the oeuvre they contribute takes the form of a crime-drama, with said work being of the highest calibre. Not wanting to be outdone, Hollywood has crafted its own take on the genre, one which is heavily inspired by their Swedish counterparts.
For the past four decades, elderly entrepreneur Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer) has been haunted by the disappearance of his granddaughter Harriett from the family estate. Vagner is certain that Harriett was murdered by a close relative and wishes to hire investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to prove if his theory is true. But before that can happen, the reporter must be vetted by Vagner’s lawyer, Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff) and a third-party investigator, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).
Blomkvist’s life is not an ideal one at present, having separated from his wife and lost a defamation lawsuit brought on by businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström. Knowing this information, Vagner invites Blomkvist to his home, luring him into the investigation with the promise of incriminating evidence against Wennerström, should he uncover Harriett’s killer. With his life savings depleted and name tarnished, Blomkvist feels he has no other option but to agree to Vagner’s offer.
Meanwhile, the woman tasked with uncovering dirt on Blomkvist is leading an equally morbid life. Lisbeth can best be described as a stereotypical goth, both in her appearance – tattoos, piercings, pale skin, dark hair – and her behaviour – reclusive, bordering on anti-social. This fact does not seem to bother Blomkvist who, after being stunned by the information she unearthed on him, seeks Lisbeth to assist with his own reconnaissance of the Vagner family.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based on the Swedish novel of the same name, written by the late Stieg Larsson. His writing was previously made into a feature-length film by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev in 2009, before a Hollywood adaptation surfaced just two years later with David Fincher at the helm. This combination of influences is reflected in the cast of Fincher’s film, which has Brits, Americans and Swedes speak fluent English to portray Larsson’s characters.
Unlike most Hollywood remakes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo retains its source material’s Nordic setting, a decision which is simultaneously bold and retrograde. Part of this reviewer wants to congratulate Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian for not pandering to their fellow countrymen and having their film take place in the United States; but another part wishes that they had changed the setting, and explored issues such as violence and sexual assault from an American perspective.
It must be noted that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo contains some very confronting material, including terrifying and, quite frankly, sickening scenes of rape. Even so, the producers are to be commended for placing such footage into the final cut, for it demonstrates how predators prey upon the vulnerable and how their victims are impacted by predatory behaviour. What makes these scenes more remarkable is the fact that this film was released in 2011, long before sexual aggression was at the forefront of public consciousness.
While this reviewer would have appreciated seeing Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo set in another part of the world, keeping the story in Scandinavia does allow the film to distinguish itself from the standard Hollywood fare. Most scenes are filmed on-location in Swedish villages, estates and the country’s capital, Stockholm, all of which looks gorgeous; its style even resembles that of a Nordic thriller, with colour-washed visuals, steady pacing and an ominous soundtrack making for eerie viewing.
Likewise, the story is one that wouldn’t look out-of-place on Swedish television. Where most murder-mysteries would kill their characters one-by-one, Dragon Tattoo is not near as heavy-handed – while certainly brutal and graphic, the film seldom resorts to violence, preferring to focus on how Blomkvist and Salander obtain the identity of the killer. The protagonists do so by examining old photographs and speaking to the most clandestine of individuals, the sort of work real investigators would do.
More enjoyable still is the superb multinational cast assembled for Dragon Tattoo. As mentioned above, the movie has a mix of British (Craig, Berkoff), American (Plummer, Mara) and Scandi actors (most notably Stellan Skarsgard) playing unequivocally Swedish characters – some with an accent, others with their normal speaking voice. While everybody inhabits their characters brilliantly, the one who most impresses is Daniel Craig, who plays his role with a sincerity rarely seen from the thespian.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a smart, if provoking, mystery that knows how to make itself stand out, taking the best parts of Sweden’s crime-dramas – gripping story, stylish setting, sublime performances – and placing them in an accessible package. Though some of its material is difficult to watch, overall Fincher’s film is a great one.