The Girl In The Spider's Web ***
Starring: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant, LaKeith Stanfield, Vicky Krieps
Director: Fede Álvarez
I think it best to preface this review by saying that I’m a BIG fan of the Lisbeth Salander movies and books. I’ve read all the novels, seen all the movies and am of the opinion that both the Swedish and American adaptations of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are full-blown five star masterpieces. And with Claire Foy in the lead of this film, the actress of the moment playing completely against type, this was poised to be a rip-roaring success… but sometimes, when something is this laden with expectation, how can it do anything but fall flat on its face?
Lisbeth (Foy) is still writing the wrongs of men who hate women. When employed by Frans Balder (Merchant) to steal back from the Americans a computer programme he has designed that can control the world’s network of nuclear missiles, she gets a lot more than she bargained for when the software is then stolen back from her by a gang of criminals. Pursued by Ed Needham (Stanfield), a CIA Agent intent on returning the programme to the US, Salander enlists the help of old friend Mikael Blomkvist (Gudnasson) to help her trace the thieves, who are somehow involved with her estranged sister, Camilla (Hoeks).
The film is based on the fourth Salander book, which was written by David Lagercrantz who had taken up the story after the death of the series’ creator Stieg Larsson. Of the five novels as yet published, this is probably the weakest. Though the two previous books were adapted in the Swedish franchise, they have been left untouched by Hollywood producers, probably in an attempt to create something new that could exist without comparison to the strength of the hugely popular original films. However, missing out such huge sections of Salander’s story makes for a somewhat incoherent narrative for anyone who hasn’t gone away and done their homework to fill in the gap between David Fincher’s first film and this. The history of the young hacker’s father is pivotal to the story here, but goes relatively unexplained because the majority of this happens in books two and three. And somehow, we’ve gone from a Lisbeth who is discovering detective work for the first time to a Lisbeth who is a full-blown action hero, without anything to seemingly join the dots.
For many, it’s Claire Foy’s casting that they will be most dubious about going into this film. However, this is the least of their concerns. Foy delivers a strong performance, capturing the subtlety of Salander’s coldness and positioning her just on the right side of unhinged. But the script doesn’t lend itself to the signature ambiguity that makes Salander such a compelling character. We see an emotional Lisbeth too many times, which detracts from the impact it could have had if used just sparingly. And while clearly confronting her sister is an intensely personal moment for her, the savage scrabble to the death she experienced with her father in book two provoked no reaction in her whatsoever, so why then does a snowy reunion with a sister she describes as a “psychopath” on a clifftop?
If I feel like I’m giving away quite a bit of detail about the plot also, it’s because there aren’t really any real narrative climaxes. It’s a hunt movie without any real tension. Blomkvist says that he’s spent three years looking for her, but somehow Needham is able to trace her with a few clicks of his mouse. Spy cameras are conveniently placed in the right place at the right time, while an X-Ray thermal imaging 3D zoom allows them to shoot baddies through the walls of a building with pinpoint precision… except when trying to shoot the ones who matter. There are objects conveniently placed outside windows so that an easy getaway can be found from just diving from a balcony. The list of these convenient narrative get-outs is seemingly endless. And using technology that simply doesn’t exist is just plain lazy; has nobody learned anything from Die Another Day’s invisible car?
And let’s just talk about Blomkvist for a second. Yes, I know that Salander is the character that everyone has come to see, but the relationship between Lisbeth and the older father-figure journalist is what drives the narrative of all iterations of these stories. So why make the decision to 1. make him not much more than a supporting player and 2. cast someone younger than Foy? Suddenly the dynamic has shifted entirely; he’s not the nurturing father-figure that she needs and instead a weak and foppish leech who has no real value to her or her investigation. The Blomkvist of auld may have been a flawed man, but he was certainly never feeble.
Coming at the end of ‘The Year Of The Woman’ I can understand why studios have now resurrected one of cinema’s most popular screen heroines, but coming seven years after the first and with none of the original players on board, it smells distinctly of someone cashing in on the zeitgeist rather than any real respect for the original source material. But of all the stories, this is the one to focus on women's issues the least, casting her not as a feminist crusader but instead a volatile vigilante, lacking that moral centre that otherwise justifies her methods.
The film is still an entertaining ride and all the composite parts of a Salander movie are here: motorcycles, bleak winter landscapes, vistas of Stockholm, amazing computer gadegetry; but each one has just been exploited to make for cheap high-octane action and has blunted the edge that she previously had. She has a motorcycle, but now she rides it across a frozen river. The landscapes are continuously bleak, with no respite from the driving permafrost. However many drones they flew over Stockholm, I’m surprised they didn’t crash into each other. And where previously she would sit behind a computer to hack into a company’s network, now she can do it on the go from her phone, controlling CCTV and security systems as she runs full-pelt without pausing to look at the screen. I mean, have you ever tried to look at your phone whilst running? It’s IMPOSSIBLE. And the cherry on top is, of course, that where Lisbeth was previously quite subtly bisexual, now she (and every single other woman in the film) is very much a lesbian. Because nothing says “edgy” quite like girl-on-girl action.
From the beginning of the film it’s immediately clear that you’re watching an entirely different movie from Fincher’s. Where his was scored with an unsettling soundtrack from the Nine Inch Nails, this uses a fairly standard orchestral score that sounds more like a Jack Ryan film than anything edgy. And where Fincher opened his movie with a Bond-esque credit sequence with a computer-generated grotesque montage, this attempts the same but with music that is wholly inappropriate for the visuals it accompanies. This, like every other one of its failings, has diluted the Salander brand and torn out the soul of what makes these stories what they are. And where their movie adaptations previously had brought their own brand of slick coolness to the Salander cannon, this has forgotten to find its own voice and rests heavily on genre tropes that don’t belong in a story that celebrates being unabashedly different. And while Foy holds her own on screen, she comes in at a poor third place in the ranks of the best Salander performance on screen.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS, RELEASED BY SONY PICTURES