Scene4 Magazine: "The Girl With The Dragon Tattool" reviewed by Miles David Moore March 2012

Miles David Moore

Scene4 Magazine-reView

March 2012

It is traditional for films to be adapted from books, plays, television programs and even other films.  However, four major releases from the end of 2011 present interesting case studies in adaptation—including one that isn't an adaptation of any film, book or play in particular.

David Fincher's English-language version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes along two years after Niels Arden Oplev's version in the original Swedish.  Fincher's version is more of the same, only slicker. It is my understanding that Oplev's movie is closer to Stieg Larsson's novel, which I have not read.  Oplev's movie is grittier—borne partly of its lower budget, but also undoubtedly because of its closer fidelity to the book.  If Lisbeth Salander gets mugged in the subway in the American version, she's nearly gang-raped in the subway in the Swedish one. Fincher's movie has an ending that—even if you come to the movie totally unfamiliar with Larsson's stories—can be identified immediately as pure Hollywood.  Oplev, unlike Fincher, also shows us what Lisbeth did to end up as a criminal ward of the state, and why she did it.

That said, Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is eminently worth seeing.  Nearly two-and-a-half hours long, it seems much shorter, racing along at the speed of Lisbeth's motorcycle.  The Vanger family's private island is just as wintry and forbidding as in the original; Lisbeth's legal guardian Bjurman is just as sadistically evil, and Lisbeth's revenge against him just as grotesquely satisfying.  The quality of acting in both films is pretty much equal, though I've heard some say they prefer Mikael Nyqvist to Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomqvist because Nyqvist never played James Bond. 


Nevertheless, the key to any adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will always be the actress who plays Lisbeth, and both versions came up aces in that regard. Rooney Mara is every bit as charismatic as Noomi Rapace was before her, a wild and wily creature made feral by the so-called civilization that brutalized her.  The sullen, inward ferocity of Mara's gaze leaves us in no doubt of her computer genius, or that she has the brains and guts to do whatever is necessary to survive.

Compared with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steven Spielberg's War Horse is a throwback to a statelier era of filmmaking.  War Horse began as a 1982 young-adult novel by British author Michael Morpurgo; in the tradition of Black Beauty, the novel is narrated by its protagonist—Joey, a Devon farm horse sold into the British Army for service in World War I. In 2007, playwright Nick Stafford adapted War Horse for the Royal National Theatre of Britain; the play—distinguished by its thrilling stagecraft, particularly the work of puppeteers who created an amazingly lifelike Joey—has been a smash hit everywhere it has played.

The stage version of War Horse is an overwhelming experience, and I wouldn't be surprised if some people who have seen the play are slightly disappointed with the movie. That's not to say, however, that the movie is lacking.  Spielberg knows he can't duplicate the concentrated intensity of the play, and he doesn't try.  The movie of War Horse is episodic of necessity, but each episode is intense and deeply moving in its own way.  We see Joey's early life with his farmboy owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who loves and trains him, and his sale by Albert's well-meaning but weak father (Peter Mullan) to the Army.  From there the story focuses on Joey's war experiences, which include a disastrous cavalry charge; a brief time with two German soldier brothers who desert from the Army; a period of respite with an old French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter; and finally the hideousness of trench warfare, which Joey and Albert experience on opposite sides of the trenches. 


Few directors have ever been able to stage battle scenes as effectively as Spielberg, and the battle scenes in War Horse—if not as bloody as those in Saving Private Ryan—don't skimp on the horror.  But the basic humanity of the people engulfed by the war—a subject dear to Spielberg's heart, and also a major theme of the play—comes through in bas relief.   Some critics find both the play and the movie sentimental, but the final scene in both versions is satisfying in an old-fashioned, big-hearted way.  It is the sort of ending that feels right in a viewer's bones, however rare it might be in real life.

From the big-heartedness of War Horse, we move to the claustrophobia of Tomas Alfredsson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, previously a famous novel by John Le Carre and a famous 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness.

Alfredsson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan had their work cut out for them in adapting Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—previously a seven-hour miniseries—into a movie of slightly more than two hours.  Julian Jarrold attempted a similar feat a few years ago, transforming Brideshead Revisited into a feature film decades after the much-cherished miniseries.  In both cases, both feature films are perfectly satisfactory if you never saw the miniseries, though Alfredsson's is somewhat more successful as a successor to the earlier work.


Gary Oldman dons Guinness' mantle as George Smiley, master spy forced out of MI6 because of office politics, who is secretly charged with discovering which of the four current leaders of British intelligence is a Soviet mole.  Oldman is excellent at capturing Smiley's bland, slightly creepy probity, and Alfredsson does a creditable job of replicating the miniseries' mood of impending doom.  Several of the film's set pieces—such as the one in which agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) comes to grief in a Budapest café—are impeccable in their stark suspense.

Some viewers have found the labyrinthine paths of Smiley's search both too difficult and too slow, though others—including some who came to the film having neither read the book nor seen the miniseries—have had no trouble following the story.  The story of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is almost a Rorschach ink-blot test for audiences, a test of what they have the patience for.  I stayed with the film, and I felt rewarded by it, though it might not be one I would choose to see again on a lark.  The cast alone is a good reason to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, including some fine longtime veterans of British Rep (Colin Firth, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds) and some notable up-and-comers (Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch).

Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist may be an original story, but in its hommage to Hollywood's silent and early talkie eras, it seems to be a remake of an entire swath of cinematic history. 

The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent-era superstar contemptuous of the nascent talkies, and Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a starlet who has a fateful, life-changing encounter with Valentin.  The Artist is, of course, a silent film except for its gorgeous score (by Ludovic Bource), a few tricks with sound effects, and its final scene. Hazanavicius is, to my knowledge, the first director since Mel Brooks and Silent Movie to confront audiences with a silent feature film. Brooks' film was fun (or "Funn," to use the name Brooks gave his character), but The Artist is something else again: a thoughtful, occasionally profound essay on the use of sound and silence in film, wrapped in an elegant, romantic, tragicomic, yet ultimately happy story guaranteed to entertain just about any audience.

I don't want to describeThe Artist too closely, to preserve the surprises Hazanavicius springs along the way.  Let's just say Hazanavicius knows how to play with film.  It is fair to describe The Artist as a mashup of Singin' in the Rain and A Star is Born.  It doesn't hurt that Jean Dujardin bears a notable resemblance to Gene Kelly in his lighter scenes and Fredric March in his darker ones, or that his performance captures the best of Kelly and the best of March. Dujardin's range seems to be virtually unlimited, as does his charm.  The same can be said of Berenice Bejo, who essentially is Leslie Caron with Mary Tyler Moore's smile.


Kim Novak has denounced The Artist for using Bernard Herrmann's love theme from Vertigo at a crucial point in the film.  I am of two minds about this: I understand Novak's anger, but I also think the music—some of the most powerful ever written for the screen--works as Hazanavicius uses it.  The Vertigo music does stand out, even in a film that is virtually all hommage.  The opening scene, which depicts the premiere of one of Valentin's silent epics, sets the tone: the film-within-a-film contains quotations from Metropolis, Fantomas, and Heaven only knows what else.

Guillaume Schiffman's resplendent black-and-white photography virtually qualifies as a star of the film, as do Laurence Bennett's production design and Mark Bridges' costumes.  The large supporting cast includes such Hollywood stalwarts as John Goodman, playing a blustery studio boss; James Cromwell, as Valentin's loyal butler-chauffeur; and Penelope Ann Miller, as Valentin's disgruntled wife. (Her farewell note to him is written on the back of one of his publicity photos, on which she has blacked out several teeth.)  The most valuable supporting player, however, is Uggie the Jack Russell Terrier.  On the basis of The Artist alone, Uggie deserves immortality as one of the greatest screen canines ever, right beside The Thin Man's Asta and Frasier's Eddie.

 P.S. February 27, 2012: It was nice to see that, before the Academy Awards ceremony last night, Roger Ebert called the top winners the same way I did: The Artist for Best Picture, Michel Hanavicius for Best Director, Jean Dujardin for Best Actor, Viola Davis for Best Actress, Christopher Plummer for Best Supporting Actor, and Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress. It was interesting to see that both Roger and I got only five out of the six correct, and that we made the same error.

I was disappointed to see that Viola Davis did not win; Davis is overdue for her first Oscar, and her performance as Aibileen was the solid rock on which The Help built its foundation. On the other hand, Meryl Streep has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget she hadn't won an Academy Award for nearly thirty years, and she has deserved to win many times over. I have mixed feelings about Streep winning her third Oscar for The Iron Lady; her performance as Margaret Thatcher was outstanding, but the screenplay seemed as if it had been left out standing, like a rancid bottle of milk.

More on the Oscar ceremony in my next blog piece, and on some of the winning films in future columns.   

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©2012 Miles David Moore
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and
the Film Critic for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
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March 2012

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