The risks pay off in thriller

2012-01-09 00:00

HOW do you make a film of a thriller that many millions of people have read, and many have seen in another film version, and still have it be utterly absorbing?

David Fincher’s response was to make a film that is faithful to the book, while stripping away its sometimes tedious digressions, amping up the atmosphere and focusing on what is important: a mystery solved by an enigma.

He took a risk casting Daniel Craig. Getting James Bond to play a journalist thrown into danger could have unbalanced the plot. Would we believe in Mikael Blomqvist, the somewhat nerdy crusader for truth, when the last time we saw him he was facing down some mythic bad guy while ordering a dry martini? Luckily, Craig is pretty self-effacing, and aside from his decision not to attempt some sort of “Swedish” accent like the other non-Swedish actors, he doesn’t bring an overwhelming air of double-O-seven competence to proceedings.

One could say Fincher took a greater risk casting the relatively untried Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous “girl”. She had a small role in The Social Network, Fincher’s film abut the founding of Facebook, but nothing there gave any sense of this actress’s willingness to go to very uncomfortable places to create the spiky and dangerous, clever and damaged Salander. She’s a character who needs to be stripped bare, in every sense, for Salander to become a real person, not just a kick-ass caricature.

Readers of the book know that there are some very uncomfortable scenes, and some reviewers have wondered whether Salander’s rape, and her revenge, need to be on screen. I think they do, because without them, she is just odd, a punky girl with a surly attitude.

The original Swedish title of the novel is Men who hate women. The author, Stieg Larsson, was himself a crusading journalist who wanted to strip away the surface of the complacent social democratic Sweden to reveal the nation’s dark secrets of Nazism and hatred. The killer behind the mystery is not an isolated freak, and Salander’s treatment by her state-appointed guardian makes this harshly clear.

As a film maker, Fincher has always been interested in the solving of mysteries by the careful analysis of written or visual clues, starting with Se7en, in which detectives tracked a killer working his way through the seven deadly sins, via Zodiac, about a newspaper cartoonist’s hunt for a long-gone serial killer, to this film, in which the clues lie in cryptic numbers and grainy old photographs.

The sleuths are quick at making connections and seeing tiny hints, and the viewer must be too. This all works much better on film, where the viewer sees what the protagonists do, than on the page where we have to understand at one remove.

Will Fincher film the other two books in the series? I hope so, because I’d like to see more of Salander. There are more hidden secrets there that I’d like to see Rooney Mara unveil. ****

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