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girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-poster-uk-poster-01In book form the “Millennium series,” Stieg Larsson’s trio of novels about the adventures of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander sold tens of millions of copies. The original set of Swedish films made Noomi Rapace s star and Salander an icon. So the news that Hollywood was doing a quick-draw remake of the Swedish noir was met with skepticism.

And in some cases hostility.

One writer said the movie should be called “The Girl with a Knife in Her Back.” Tensions eased when David “The Social Network” Fincher was announced as director and Daniel Craig as star.

The remaining question was, who would have the unenviable task of reshaping the Salander character?

Rooney Mara, that’s who. Get used to the name. After this, you’ll likely be hearing a lot about her. More about her later.

The original series of “Girl” movies started strong with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and rapidly went downhill in parts two and three. There’s no way of knowing how future installments of the Anglo franchise will go, but it’s off to a good start.

The crisp crunch of the snowy Swedish setting is still there, maintaining the stark, icy feel of the original stories. The movie begins with Blomkvist’s (Daniel Craig) humiliation, a loss in a libel case brought against him by a Swedish industrialist. The verdict endangers everything he has worked for, in particular Millennium magazine, where he’s editor-in-chief and head muckraker.

In the midst of this he accepts an intriguing job. Hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the scion of an industrial dynasty, he is charged with solving a forty-year-old murder. In the late sixties Vanger’s favorite niece disappeared, leaving no trace except for framed, pressed flowers which arrive every year on Henrik’s birthday. It is a cold case, one that the police haven’t been able to solve, but Vanger feels that Blomkvist’s dogged style might be able to uncover some new clues. Aiding the journalist in his search is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a trouble computer hacker with a massive tattoo of a dragon on her back.

Purists can relax, Fincher’s version of the story doesn’t take many liberties with the story. But where the original film was a pulpy exercise in lowbrow thrills—Nazis! Bondage! Revenge Tattooing!—Fincher has smoothed out some of the edges to make a more elegant film.

All the original elements are more or less in place, but he has trimmed down the story shards from the book (and the original movie), condensing the source material’s myriad characters into a more streamlined package.

But he hasn’t taken away the edge. This is a brutal story, no matter how elegant the execution. Rape and violence are part of the tale’s vocabulary and despite a few discreet camera cut-a-ways Fincher doesn’t soften the tone. Months ago they were calling this The Feel Bad Movie Of Christmas, and they weren’t far off (only “New Year’s Eve” disturbed me more, but for different reasons).

The film’s main asset is Mara, who finds the balance between giving the people what they want—the goth clothes, tats, piercings and attitude—and making the part her own. Her take has the same kind of quiet menace Rapace radiated, but adds in a healthy dose of vulnerability and complex anti-social sexuality.

Who’s better, Rapace or Rooney? Who cares? The role is the thing and each woman brings something interesting to one of the most interesting female characters the screen has seen in a long time.

Plummer and Craig do predictably good work and Fincher brings his unerring sense of style, but the movie is Mara’s.

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