Lisbeth Salander is like James Bond. As a fictional character, she gets represented in multiple films, by multiple actors, and in multiple different stories. We’re not talking a constant reboot of the same story, like Spider Man, instead, hers are different stories each time, which continue to build a history, no matter who plays her, who writes her or who directs her. In the new movie The Girl in the Spider’s Web, it is Claire Foy (of The Crown fame) who climbs into the skin of the character made famous in late novelist Stieg Larsson’s Millenium book series, the most famous being The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Previously played by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish-language trilogy and Rooney Mara in the David Fincher-directed American version, Lisbeth Salander is a meaty, complex and exciting character and I would imagine many actresses would relish the opportunity. But Salander isn’t an easy character to play, and each actress has achieved varying levels of success. For Rapace, her performance as Salander in the three Swedish movies based on Larsson’s original three Salander books skyrocketed her to fame in Sweden, which she has since translated to a significant Hollywood career, with starring roles in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant and an upcoming biopic of Maria Callas. When David Fincher was casting for his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2011, he chose relative unknown American actress Rooney Mara to play Salander. Mara was nominated for Best Actress for the role and has gone onto have a significant career, including another Best Actress nomination for Carol in 2015. History has proven that playing Lisbeth Salander can truly kick-start a career. So, what about the actress who dons the tattoos and piercings in the newest Salander story? Well, for Claire Foy, I believe the choice was made not to create a career trajectory for herself, but, rather, to change it.
Actors hate to be pigeon-holed. They consider themselves capable of playing any type of character at any time. And taking an opportunity to “play against type” is often considered the most satisfying role of all. For Claire Foy, her star-making role as Queen Elizabeth II in the hugely successful Netflix series The Crown has been both a blessing and a curse. Plucked out of obscurity to play one of the most famous women of the twentieth century, Foy is brilliant as the Queen, perfectly British, elegant, refined, restrained and unemotional. If she didn’t know already, I’m sure her agent warned her, if she didn’t take a role quickly that could put her in a different light, she would be typecast for the rest of her career as a stuffy Brit. So it’s not much of a surprise that she would jump at the chance to play Salander, who could easily be said is about as far from Queen Elizabeth as you can get. But, for Foy, even though we aren’t comparing her to QEII anymore, we are comparing her to Rapace and Mara, which, ironically, prove to be even worse.
That’s not to say that Foy doesn’t give it her all. She does. But, for me, her Lisbeth Salander just doesn’t have the special something that Rapace and Rooney had, which made this character so darkly charismatic. She’s dressing up in the part, but she’s just not believable in it. It doesn’t help that the story of this movie (unrelated to the original Larsson books) is really ridiculous, but that’s really beside the point. The Girl in the Spider’s Web’s story is just an excuse to get us to spend time with Salander and to continue her story. She is a most fascinating character, and the writers do their best to expand our connection to her, but Foy just isn’t able to make that pivotal connection to the character herself.
What does make The Girl in the Spider’s Web still watchable, though, is the fact that it looks great. Director Fede Alvarez is truly talented. His use of tracking shots and camera movements frame each shot with drama and tension. He makes full use of the dark and cold Swedish setting, and the action sequences are well done.
However, there is just too much in the story that is farfetched, nonsensical or blatantly manipulative to make The Girl in the Spider’s Web a movie to recommend. If you really want to see this wonderfully-written female character of Lisbeth Salander the way she should be seen, check out either Rapace or Mara in any of their previous incarnations (or, better yet, read the books). As for Claire Foy, even though she may have reached beyond her grasp here, she will get other chances to prove to us that she’s more than a perfectly executed curtsy—and I am looking forward to it.