The runt of the litter.
Lisbeth Salander, the righter of wrongs, the woman that hurts men who hurt women, has had a 21st century boost in the film-sphere. Stemming from Stieg Larson’s best selling series of brutal noir novels, she first arrived onscreen in 2009’s home-brewed Swedish adaptation, based on the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with the brilliant Noomi Rapace in the role (plus a series of sequels). Then the father of modern, western cinematic hybristophilia, David Fincher, remade it in 2011, subbing Rooney Mara in as Lisbeth and gifting her an Oscar-nomination in the process. Now it’s 2018, and Sony have presented us with a sequel-cum-soft reboot, opting to take on the one novel not written by Larson (uh oh), placing Fede Alvarez in the director’s chair and casting Claire Foy as the titular Girl in the Spider’s Web. The end result of this far-wrought fiction is expectedly a misfire, almost impressive in its near-total lack of exhilaration.
We open with a young Lisbeth and her sister Camilla (played by the otherwise fabulous Sylvia Hoeks later) partaking in a game of chess. Their father calls them through, basking in the cold, shadowy light of winter. The immediacy of what he’s after is frightening, but Lisbeth isn’t as loyal as her unguarded sibling, and is forced to leave her stranded as she escapes (in a fashion that kickstarts the film’s habit of ignoring mortality). Then begins a Bond-esque credits sequence stained with blacks and reflective greys, complete with the sort of ambiguous subliminal imagery that will, in some way, relate to the tale we’re about to be told. It’s gorgeous, but thoroughly unexpected considering the pulpy source material.
We’re reacquainted with Lisbeth fairly quickly; a woman has been abused by her husband, she’s lying on the ground with a bloodied face, he offers his comfort and a placeholder apology until the next beating. Lights go out. He strolls through his overtly extravagant home to turn the power back on; as he turns, he’s faced with a dark angel. “Take your children and leave, he will not hurt you again”, she says. We’re firmly back in Millennium territory, but from here the storytelling stumbles like a lumbering drunkard.
To add to the sisterly skeletons in the closet, there’s a generic end-of-the-world plot involving Stephen Merchant, and the return of past cohort Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason). The former never really elicits any sort of major dramatic tension (probably because it’s almost lifted out of a Mission: Impossible romp), and the latter struggles to infuse any sizzling chemistry due to the fact it’s different actors, in a different movie, with a very different dynamic. The script, written by Jay Busu, Steven Knight and Alavarez, is a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the stew. Not that they were afforded the best of starts, adapting David Lagercantz’ much weaker release in the series. But the dialogue throughout is painfully contrived to carry the (incredibly dull) narrative along, rather than feeling like an organic process. Things just happen in Spider’s Web, for no other reason than they have to to get onto to the next chapter; people find names and addresses with no struggle, walk in the right place in the right time without any sort of self-aware pay off. As an audience member, you need to buy into the stakes to feel that little flutter of anxiety, that engulfing pressure that connects you to the rumbling stomach of the drama – here it’s so contrived it veers into aggravation.
There are inklings of something terrific here; Alvarez’s portfolio sells itself, and Foy is genuinely the picture’s saving grace as a much more conflicted, vulnerable Lisbeth. The score from Roque Baños is bombastic and occasionally even epic, and the cinematography from frequent collaborator Pedro Luque frames the not-so-mysterious-mystery with a mixture of intimate and seductive visuals. But where it counts, the experience falls totally flat – boring, lacklustre action scenes deprived of real, gruelling choreography, hilariously standard plot devices (look out for the scary syringe!) and a central relationship that never ignites a sense of intrigue. The standout moment is an asphyxiating vacuum-pack torture scene, perfectly executed with a devilish tendency to fixate on the tightening of the black, airless sack, tightening on the audiences chests in return. It made me think of the traumatic, adeptly injurious 2009 feature, a film so far, far better than this, that it’s almost a shame that Foy’s impressively enthusiastic take is forgotten amidst a snorefest.
A fat, big-budget dud with a pulse that even a versatile Foy can’t keep from flatlining.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm