Dir: Fede Álvarez Cast: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant, Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps. 15 cert, 115 min
The story so far with goth-punk-vigilante-hacker-vengance-icon Lisbeth Salander is long, grim and often madly hard to follow. First there was the trilogy of novels in the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, published after his death in 2004, and each adapted for Swedish television with Noomi Rapace in the main role. Then David Fincher made the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2011, which got Rooney Mara an Oscar nomination.
And now we have The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which has nothing to do with anyone in the above paragraph except Lisbeth herself. Played afresh by our very own Claire Foy, she’s a replica of the Rapace and Mara avatars with a backstory – family abuse survivor, rape victim, and general bundle of Foy, with piercings and tattoos all over her as emblems of trauma – we by now take as read.
The book is not one of Larsson’s own, but a continuation of the series, much like those spin-off James Bond novels by Sebastian Faulks and co. Its author, David Lagercrantz, has had nothing to do with the adaptation either. And the lack of any identifiable showrunner to keep this series glued together cuts both ways. On the plus side, it has some chances to ditch the baggage and charge excitably ahead, staking out a brand new global conspiracy for Lisbeth to pick apart.
The trouble is that the baggage, for Lisbeth’s fans, is the whole reason to care. What’s weird, stunted and a bit unsatisfying about the film is what scant weight her personal journey succeeds in gaining, even though the plot pivots her back to childhood memories of what her late father did to her twin sister Camilla (Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks), who’s also supposed to be dead. So little is done in flashback to cement these relationships that Lisbeth’s opponents – although they turn out to have links to her past – might just as well be strangers. The film is more interested in their maniacal plan to hack the NSA and steal the world’s secret nuclear codes, basically just for the heck of it.
The thriller we’re landed with is fast, flashy and barely sticks around for chit-chat – there are whole half-hour sections where Lisbeth’s cunning and tech-savvy let her chicane her way out of trouble without saying a word. As such, the movie positions her more as a brooding female equivalent of Jason Bourne than a quippy 007, but the villains are very Bond-like.
The director, Uruguay’s Fede Álvarez, has some chops: he made 2013’s impressively full-on Evil Dead remake, and 2016’s dungeon-trap horror hit Don’t Breathe, which put merciless technique to frankly repugnant ends, heavily borrowing from Fincher’s Panic Room. It’s unclear from those movies (or this) that you’d trust him to make a sensitive drama, but when it comes to splicing a chase scene together with brutal mano-a-mano combat, or committing the vast majority of his cast to the morgue he’s very much your man.
Replacing Daniel Craig, Sverrir Gudnason gets much less of a look-in as Larsson’s journalist hero Mikael Blomkvist, but this redounds handily to the spooked NSA agent played under wire-rimmed specs by Lakeith Stanfield, who ups the film’s cool factor with every twitch in his arsenal, becoming not only the best but also the hottest ally Lisbeth has ever had. (Which is more than can be said for Stephen Merchant as a sore-thumb ex-NSA software whiz.)
There’s a doomy superficial finesse to the picture, with all its wintry confrontations, skull-trained sniper fire and quick thinking, and it doesn’t take itself as seriously as Fincher’s did. But then, it couldn’t: there’s nothing going on beneath. Foy can look fierce in leather, grab your attention amply and glower her way through it only so far, before the plot’s pretend depths catch up with her, demanding crocodile tears and unearned pathos. Weirdly, she’s more formidable, furious and scary as Neil Armstrong’s marginalised wife in First Man than she is throughout this. Lisbeth’s predicament in this thinly constituted, cartoonishly malign web makes her almost too good a fit for Foy, who’s trussed up and curiously immobilised in her own movie.