When Howard Hawks determined to make a star of the then-nineteen year old Lauren Bacall for 1944's To Have and Have Not, he did so by lending her character his wife's soubriquet (Slim) and by having her teach her co-star how to whistle. For his screen version of the Stieg Larsson bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher attempts to make a star of young Rooney Mara by covering her body in disfiguring ink, giving her a pierced nipple or two, and fitting her with, by all accounts, a ginger pubic wig (though the scenes in which it appears are so underlit one can scarcely tell), then having her manacled to a bed and anally raped. In the unlikely circumstance that I found myself an up-and-coming starlet, I think I'd probably be happier on the Hollywood D-list, all told.
Times change, and tastes: the difference between these acts of Svengalism may lie in an awareness of just what it takes to rouse a jaded, image-saturated audience these days. Mara was quietly impressive in a handful of scenes in Fincher's previous The Social Network, lending a critical dimension to the boyish activity that went into the creation of Facebook, but here's she competing against Noomi Rapace's almost certainly definitive screen reading of the role of Lisbeth Salander, kick-ass computer hacker, in Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 version. Where Rapace employed sharp eyes and sharper cheekbones to cut through the abuses Larsson piled on the character, Mara remains a thin slip of a thing, acting tough in a bid to shrug off the easily explicable daddy issues Steven Zaillian's adaptation has saddled this Lisbeth with. (In a too-cute Scandinavian touch, Fincher has her munch self-consciously on a Ryvita for one scene.)
For most of the first hour of this Dragon Tattoo, Mara's Salander is also something of an irrelevance, and watching this narrative unfold on screen for a second time, I was struck by its peculiar shape. It takes ninety minutes - or the comparable number of pages - for the leads to meet, and it may be that this project's numerous male authors felt their heroine has to take one in the keester to lend their sputtering material a jeopardy otherwise lacking in the other strand, where journalist Mikael Blomkvist (here, Daniel Craig, allowed to keep his English accent, where everybody else has to impersonate the chef from The Muppet Show), hired to investigate a past disappearance, is mostly exercised with shuffling some paper around and taking meetings with bullish character actors (Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Donald Sumpter).
Oplev's version had the boxy yet functional dimensions of a Sunday night TV procedural (its two sequels were TV movies in all but medium); Fincher, as expected, makes Larsson's words and plotting more cinematic to look at, but he does so by going full Goth, to borrow a phrase from Tropic Thunder, reducing the film's colour palette to the barest of monochrome minimums, as signalled by some frankly horrible opening credits that appear a tacky flashback to this director's grounding in advertising and pop promos. Well, maybe The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was always supposed to be tacky and distasteful and mass-market, a two-fingered rejoinder to the kind of good Scandinavian taste that leads to the abuses and hypocrisies Blomkvist and Salander uncover in the course of their inquiries. (The material chimes with the various Wallanders, which poke over the legacy of Sweden's traditionally liberal governance.)
There are surely elements of Gothic melodrama in the story of a waifling heroine at the mercy of the men around her: Lisbeth Salander may be the most prominent ward outside of Dickens to suffer at the hands of a brutish guardian. The problem with Fincher's film may be one of limitation: that no-one can make of Larsson's readable yet less than profound prose anything more than rattling pulp. The disappointment is Fincher struggles to make even that, despite the considerable advantages at his disposal. If Oplev's film was a Volvo, shuttling us unfussily between points A and B, Fincher's is a Volvo resprayed Lamborghini black. The journey time is practically identical - 152 minutes for Oplev, as opposed to 157 for Fincher - but the latter keeps taking short cuts that give the illusion of speed.
An example: this Lisbeth's ward (Yorick van Wageningen) is notably more corpulent than his Swedish counterpart, his desk laden with hypocrisy-asserting familial tchotchkes (a "Daddy" mug, a photo of him with his wife and child), a spot of blunt point-making that tips the film back towards the multiplex grotesquerie of Fincher's earlier Se7en. He's a pig: we get it, even before this Lisbeth tattoos words to that effect on his chest. Similarly, the film's signature item of clothing (it gets a chuckle) isn't the heroine's leather gear, but a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend "Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck". (She's a rebel: again, we've got it.) While infinitely more sophisticated on a technical level, Fincher's film isn't much more refined or, really, stirring than Oplev's, and it's actually far less subtle in the way it goes about describing its characters.
There are isolated pockets of interest, granted. Fincher directs the ham out of Steven Berkoff, and he's found a novel means of employing Julian Sands, by confining him to flashbacks and having somebody else talk all over his dialogue. Penned up in Harvard last year, the filmmaker takes a renewed joy in light and architecture, dwelling over the kind of starkly modernist interiors one finds in the BBC's Wallander remakes; he reserves a particular fascination for the island of houses whose residents cannot bear to speak to one another - an anti-social network, if ever there was. Yet elsewhere the all-new Dragon Tattoo is shot through with tell-tale signs Fincher's heart really wasn't in this, or - worse - that his overriding interest lay in wringing the material for a few lowest-denominator yaks and yuks. He gets a laugh when the psycho reveals his preferred choice of torture chamber listening, but it's hard not to feel Oplev made the better choice in refusing to let out any tension at this crucial stage in proceedings.
Fincher has a famously dysfunctional relationship with his own films, including talking down The Social Network at a point when he (and his film's Oscar chances) might have been better served by an acknowledgement it was among the best damn pictures of last year; this, far more so than its predecessor, feels like the work-for-hire its director regarded the earlier film as, an attempt to give the audience what they want, even if what they want is anal rape and ginger merkins. As such, it's difficult not to see it as a slackening off, at a moment we thought Fincher might have stepped up to assume the mantle of America's Greatest Living Director. Compare TGWTDT to the genuinely probing two hours and forty minutes of 2007's Zodiac, and you can see how barely engaged he is here: vast swathes of the new film - including a pointlessly attenuated epilogue Oplev tied up in a matter of shots - feel unremarkable, bordering on the indifferent, and you may simply be better off renting the original, which at least avoided the problem of those Muppety accents.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens in cinemas nationwide from Boxing Day.