Dir: Fede Alvarez. Starring: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant, Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps. Cert 15, 115 mins
The Girl in the Spider’s Web seems a long way removed from the original vision of the Millennium series author, Stieg Larsson. His crime novels were rooted in the Swedish contemporary experience. They drew heavily on his observations of corruption, political extremism and sexual violence. The new feature (using Larsson’s characters but based on a novel by David Lagercrantz and intended as a loose sequel to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is stylised in the extreme. Its action scenes are ingenious but very cartoonish. It has a dream-like feel. We keep expecting that Lisbeth Salander (now played by Claire Foy) will wake up and the film will take a more grounded and grown-up approach but this never happens. Instead, we are presented with an adult fairy tale.
An early flashback of Lisbeth as a child, playing chess with her sister Camilla in some dark, cavernous room, reveals how little Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez is interested in conventional realism. As one sister makes a move, we see a spider on the board. The girls are captives of their very sinister father but that still doesn’t explain why no one has a feather duster. (Surely, someone would have cleaned away the cobwebs.)
As she showed in her portrayal of Neil Armstrong’s wife in First Man, Foy can be very expressive on screen even when starved of speaking lines. Lisbeth Salander, a motorbike driving, bisexual punk with a genius for gadgets and a reckless bravery, is nothing like Janet Armstrong but she too is on the taciturn side. Foy plays her with the same steely intensity. The scenes here in which Lisbeth is held captive against her will or force fed debilitating drugs are reminiscent of what Foy’s character endured when locked up in an asylum in Steven Soderbergh’s recent low-budget, iPhone-shot Unsane. Here, though, her resilient, committed performance is undermined by the flimsiness of the plotting.
The basic storyline here could have come from any humdrum Cold War thriller of the past 50 years. A brilliant scientist (played a little improbably by comedian Stephen Merchant) has developed a computer programme called Project Firewall that can control the codes for all the world’s nuclear weapons. He regrets designing it but hopes Lisbeth can stop it from falling into the wrong hands. This part of the plot somehow becomes intertwined with the ongoing psychodrama about Lisbeth’s troubled family background – the father who abused her, the sister from whom she is estranged and the roots of her misandry.
Director Alvarez may be touching on some dark areas but the film is very sleek and stylish. It panders to the ongoing preconception that everyone in Sweden has an intense interest in interior design. Lisbeth lives in a warehouse-style apartment that is both as secure as Fort Knox and immaculately maintained in best Bauhaus minimalist fashion. Even the misogynistic villains (the bankers Lisbeth likes to truss up) have good taste. The film is set in winter. Colours are desaturated. Everything is seen through grey filters. Snow is always on the ground. This makes the crimson red costumes worn by Lisbeth’s twin sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks in wicked witch mode) in the latter scenes seem all the more striking. There are strangely fetishistic scenes of characters in rubber and masks.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web has a bumpy, episodic feel. Its action sequences are often exhilarating in themselves but have little to do with the bigger story the film is trying to tell. We’ll see Lisbeth riding across the ice on her motorbike one moment or performing stunts in a car that Steve McQueen might have envied the next. She never loses her presence of mind. If fire is raging round her, she’ll find water to protect her or a window to jump out of. In between bouts of vicious violence, Alvarez will often then show her curled up on a window ledge or looking soulful and vulnerable, like a little girl lost.
One of the film’s major problems is that it can’t work out anything meaningful to do with Mikael Blomkvist (played here Sverrir Gudnason), the crusading journalist who is as important to the original Millennium stories as Lisbeth himself. He has a bit of writer’s block. His girlfriend is suspicious of his obsession with Lisbeth but all he does throughout the film is slavishly follow in Lisbeth’s wake, invariably turning up at the crime scenes just after she has left and always seeming like a hanger-on.
Some of the supporting characters are equally one-dimensional. and redundant. The incongruously cheerful American NSA security expert and ex-hacker Needham/“War Child” (Lakeith Stanfield) seems to have stumbled out of some spy comedy. Claes Bang, the charismatic lead in Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner, The Square, is reduced here to playing a heavy whose blond hair makes him look like Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love.
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Alongside its many digressions and random plot twists, the film offers spectacular and enjoyably ghoulish interludes: explosions, characters who peel off their faces, chases, fights, crashes and standoffs in the snow. As a thriller, it barely works at all but as a fairground ride-style fantasy melodrama, it still has its moments.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is released on 23 November
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