The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – review
Warning contains spoilers
Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy raised the bar for crime writers the world over. Part thriller, part noir and highly political, it gave us two enduring characters who stepped away from the page and became almost three dimensional.
The first is Larsson’s alter ego Michael Blomkvist. Larsson was a left-wing activist, journalist, the editor of an investigative periodical Expo, a Swedish counterpart to Searchlight and an expert on far-right groups. Blomkvist is co-founder of an investigative periodical, Millennium, that takes on the rich and the powerful and as a result regularly finds itself in trouble.
The second is the extraordinary Lisbeth Salander, one of the most captivating fictional creations in modern literature. Victim of a violently abusive father, she’s thrown into state care after she sets fire to him for beating her mother and leaving her with brain damage. Sexually, physically and pharmacologically abused through her incarceration she remains a ward of the state though she’s in her twenties, and making a living as an investigator through her ability to hack into computers. As the novels unfold we come to know someone who is deeply scarred, vulnerable and yet possessed of an awesome facility for self preservation. Salander becomes a modern avenging angel.
Not did Larsson produce great characters and a truly gripping plot (I read the third volume in a little over 24 hours, stopping only to sleep), but Swedish friends attest to its being beautifully written (though I suspect the translation has rendered it rather more work-a-day). So it’s a series that despite its popularity one would hope a film maker would approach with a degree of respect.
As a result I went to see the English language version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wondering just how big a hash director David Fincher would make of it. I couldn’t see Daniel Craig as Blomkvist. Blomkvist may find himself in the role of action man from time to time but he’s an idealistic softy at heart. Craig doesn’t make a convincing journalist. Journalists spend days chained to their computers. They eat doughnuts and drink coffee. They don’t have abs. OK a few have abs but very few journalists are very good journalists and have abs. There isn’t time.
Rooney Mara on the other hand was a surprise. I could believe that her Lisbeth Salander had been systematically maltreated. She managed to capture quite convincingly a combination of low self esteem, fragility and rage.
However my biggest issue was with the directing. The settings, the cinematography, the degree of fidelity to the original story were all commendable. I’ll set aside the fact that the film opened with a striking but meaningless pop-video-like CGI sequence set to a godawful cover of Led Zeppelin’s sublime Immigrant Song.
What really bothered me were the sex scenes. I know that the ubiquity of porn has changed the way sex is shown on screen. Directors parade more flesh – female flesh of course, no penises – and Rooney Mara’s flesh was put on a float and paraded down Main Street.
That’s widely accepted these days if the sex shown is supposedly between two consenting adults. But in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the sex involves someone who has been profoundly traumatised throughout her adolescence and young adulthood.
In the book when Salander slips into Blomkvist’s bed and the two make love it’s an act of considerable trust on her part, while Blomkvist, who one is led to believe is romantically rather cavalier, seems unaware of just how vulnerable Salander is making herself to him and how big a deal that is. Needless to say Fincher passes on the subtext in favour of straight sex, with the result that it loses much of its emotional power.
If that scene is a missed opportunity then the scene where Salander is manacled to a bed, raped and sodomised by her legal guardian is just plain shameful.
Portraying rape on screen places a huge responsibility on the film-maker. To eroticise rape is essentially to condone it. Not only does it ignore the fact that rape is nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power, it also validates the act.
Film-makers who want to show rape for what it is show us faces not bodies. They allow us to look into the eyes of the victim and see their suffering, their powerlessness and to identify with the emotional impact that sexual violence has on them.
Fincher shows us Mara largely naked, chained face down to a bed. We never look into her eyes. We only see her face in profile. We see her writhing around.
After the attack, when she limps away, we see her from behind, Rooney shuffling so as to underscore the physical impact of anal rape – but again we don’t see her eyes as she processes what has happened to her. The act is objectified. We watch. We aren’t helped to empathise.
Frankly having sat through what seemed to me the eroticisation of the forced and violent sodomy of a much abused woman I felt not a little soiled and complicit for having watched it.
I’m quite surprised that more fuss hasn’t been made about the scene. It’s all the more shocking because Larsson’s own position seemed pretty clear to me. The depiction of the rape scene in the book was of an act of violence, not sex. The incident was about power and domination and we were never allowed to forget what Salander was going through.
Indeed the Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is “Män Som Hatar Kvinnor”: “Men Who Hate Women.” At the start of each section of the book is a page blank save for a fact about violence against women in Sweden.
I hope it’s not pushing the point too far to suggest that Larsson was a feminist writer, or at least hoped that was what he was. (Nick Cohen in the Observer disagrees though as he bases his argument on remarks quoted without proper context it’s hard to know if he has a case).
I can’t help but feel that Fincher’s movie was a betrayal of the book’s core values and that we’ve somehow contrived to overlook the fact that he’s turned an explicit protest against violence against women into a spectacle which we’re expected to secretly enjoy.
If there’s one thing above all about big money entertainment that saddens me it’s its apparent determination to pander to the worst in us rather than to appeal to the best.