The appeal of late Swedish author Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of mystery novels can be summed up in the new title given to the first book by its English-language publishers: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Larsson’s plotting and writing? Compelling in parts but mostly pedestrian verging on plodding. The character of Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading investigative journalist? Serviceable but bland.
No, the real drawcard is Lisbeth Salander, one of the more intriguing figures I’ve encountered in recent crime fiction.
Not only is the complex and acute computer hacker extraordinaire the smartest person in any room she enters, she’s also someone who neither forgives nor forgets. All of which makes her compulsively watchable.
The magnetism of the character is such that Hollywood snapped up the rights to the Millennium trilogy, even though the three novels had already brought to the screen in Sweden, with Noomi Rapace delivering a strong, rigourous performance as Salander.
The American version, however, has its own share of heavy hitters on both sides of the camera, such as Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian, Social Network director David Fincher and Daniel Craig playing Blomkvist.
But the real coup of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is the casting of little-known actress Rooney Mara as Salander.
Best remembered for her fine work in a handful of Social Network scenes, Mara is all but unrecognisable here.
But the physical transformation pales in comparison to the tough, verging on impenetrable psychology she conveys – her performance is all the more compelling for the way she makes Salander both dangerous and vulnerable.
And she’s well-complemented by Craig, who sheds his 007 persona to make Blomkvist a convincingly genuine character, capable and driven but also impulsive and at times powerless.
The two actors make a fine team, as do the two characters, who come together to investigate a decades-old mystery involving the disappearance of a wealthy industrialist’s young niece, their efforts slowly uncovering a snake pit of sexual abuse and serial murder.
Even with Zaillian streamlining and finessing Larsson’s novel and Fincher adding his trademark icy precision and underlying sense of pain, danger and damage (especially in the arresting opening credits sequence), the lurid, pulpy roots of Larsson’s source material remain evident.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. There’s always room for a gritty (and occasionally unsettling and upsetting) thriller with a slick surface, and that’s definitely what The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo delivers.