Saturday, December 24, 2011

Tough Broads on Film

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher
Opened December 20, 2011

The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Opens December 30, 2011 in NYC and LA

Two steely women--one real, one fake--are hitting our holiday screens: Margaret Thatcher, first female prime minister of Great Britain and Lizbeth Salander, computer hacker extraordinaire.

Salander has become one of recent fiction’s most recognizable characters thanks to Stieg Larsson’s trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Interestingly, Dragon Tattoo’s original Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, shows that Larsson’s interest lay as much in the society that shunned Salander and embraced misogyny as the young woman herself: putting Salander front and center was a shrewd move by the trilogy’s English-language publishers.

The three Swedish films released here last year, which stuck fairly closely to Larsson’s convoluted and coincidence-heavy plots, featured the star-making presence of Noomi Rapace, the Spanish-Swedish actress whose indelible portrayal were the films’ raison d’etre. Rapace’s intensity brought Larsson’s tales of misogynistic murderers into clear focus, especially in her scenes with Michael Nyqvist, who played crusading liberal journalist Mikael Blomkvist, whom Salander teams with professionally and personally.

In the new American remake, written by Steven Zaillian--who unnecessarily changes plot twists without making them any clearer or more plausible--and directed by David Fincher with a slickness missing from Niels Arden Oplev’s grittier original, there’s a problem in the casting. 007’s Daniel Craig is more Bond than Blomkvist, less frumpy than chiseled and less flummoxed than calm; still, he’s a resourceful enough actor to overcome these challenges, and he also finds the dark humor in Blomkvist’s troubles.

Rooney Mara, inexplicably getting raves and Oscar talk, is a pixyish Salander who looks like a teenage boy, one reason why she and Craig completely miss out on the strange sexual connection cemented by Rapace and Nyqvist’s chemistry in the other film. This is particularly surprising because Fincher and Zaillian have played up Salander as a sex object in this version: Salander’s tattoos and piercings are slobbered over, as is Mara’s naked body (the actress has no problem with the ample nudity that most likely scared off better-known American actresses), even in the brutal rape scene that’s the heart of the story and which Fincher shoots for blatant shock value, which betrays Larsson’s meaning.

In an eclectic international cast that finds Europeans, Canadians and Americans playing Swedes with headbutting accents, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright and Stellan Skarsgard stand out. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s music has sharp-edged moments (notably in the rendition of Led Zep’s “The Immigrant Song” over the opening credits) but too insistently signals oncoming dread, killing its effectiveness. Larsson’s elaborate plotting means that 15-20 minutes of exposition (particularly during Skarsgard’s lengthy explanations to a drugged and beaten Craig) should have been jettisoned.

Despite these missteps, Fincher’s visual imaginativeness--like his gliding, Kubrickian tracking shots that transform frozen wintry landscapes into lifeless yet ghost-ridden settings a la The Shining--coupled with Jeff Cronenweth’s glistening cinematography and Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s virtuoso editing make this Tattoo a qualified success.

An unqualified success is Meryl Streep’s tour de force as Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, a Cliff Notes summary of the prime minister’s career as the most polarizing politician of her time. Abi Morgan’s script borrows the central gimmick from A Beautiful Mind--in which another character stands in for its protagonist’s mental illness--to visualize Thatcher’s late-life dementia.

The gimmick works as far as it goes, allowing the filmmakers to move back and forth from Thatcher’s early days as a budding Conservative Party candidate and her heyday as prime minister during an economic crisis and the Falklands War to her late career failure, when she was voted down as the party’s (and nation’s) leader. Lloyd and Morgan juggle these strands with skill and even feeling for their protagonist--who more precisely was an antagonist who presided over the nastiest social program cuts in British history, and whose rah-rah response to the Argentine Falklands invasion preceded Reagan and two Bushes’ patriotic conflicts by several years--but their star gives it forceful, purposeful life.

Although Alexandra Roach is strong as young Margaret and Jim Broadbent brings his immense likeability to Thatcher’s husband Dennis, it’s Streep’s show all the way. Not only does she have Thatcher’s physical attributes down (the slightly open lips, the granite-like stare), but her accent is--at least to these ears--flawless. Even when Streep has the chance to engage in her self-indulgences (utilizing several gestures or eye dartings when one would suffice), she overcomes the urge: the harrowing close-ups, particularly of Thatcher as an elderly woman, who’s beaten down, tired and lonely, give intimate glimpses at the character she’s playing, not simply showing off her formidable technique.

Recently, a DVD set of three BBC films about Thatcher presented a trio of remarkable portrayals from Andrea Riseborough (upstart politician), Patricia Hodge (wartime Maggie) and the incredibly subtle Lindsay Duncan (fall from grace). Although The Iron Lady merely summarizes those three films’ narrative arcs, it grips and grabs us thanks to Streep’s undisputed--and unsurprising--brilliance.

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