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Which Actress Is the Best Lisbeth Salander: Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, or Noomi Rapace?

As the third iteration of the "Dragon Tattoo" franchise comes to the big screen, IndieWire debates the merits of its different leading ladies.

Adapted from the fourth novel of the best-selling “Millennium” series — which David Lagercrantz continued after the death of original author Stieg Larsson — Fede Álvarez’s “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is technically a (distant) sequel to David Fincher’s 2011 thriller, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” In reality, however, this new movie is nothing less (and nothing more) than a bonafide franchise reboot, as far removed from Fincher’s movie as Fincher’s movie was from the trilogy of Swedish films that director Niels Arden Oplev first made from Larsson’s books.

To recap: There are now three distinct film versions of hacker Lisbeth Salander, and “The Girl in the Spider Web” is her fifth on-screen adventure. In Oplev’s triptych, the feminist vigilante was played by “Prometheus” actress Noomi Rapace. In Fincher’s one and only stab at the series, she was recast with Rooney Mara. Now, “The Crown” star Claire Foy has adopted the character’s signature nü-metal scowl, reinventing the role as some kind of hi-tech spy, while also proving the part to be as interchangeable as James Bond.

But there are James Bonds, and there are James Bonds. Audiences have never had trouble understanding how Pierce Brosnan might suddenly be replaced by Daniel Craig, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a world of difference between, say, Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton. A character may grow iconic enough to survive a casting change, but it’s always possible that some intrinsic part of who they are might get lost in the process. Has that happened here?

Critics have not been kind to this third (and potentially final) big-screen iteration of the series, with IndieWire Film Editor Kate Erbland writing that “it’s laden with undercooked revelations that muddle the story, misunderstanding that narrative ‘twists’ don’t always result in a ‘twisted’ story.” Her review typifies the response to the film, which currently has a foul score of 48% on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, Kate had kind things to say about Foy’s performance, writing that “she’s evolved beyond a dead-eyed computer whiz and into a slightly more emotional warrior with a real flair for punishing baddies,” before concluding that Foy “turns in the best depiction of Lisbeth yet.”

Alas, that sentiment is not entirely shared around the office; for IndieWire Senior Film Critic David Ehrlich, Foy is a poor imitation of the previous Lisbeths. There can be only one. And so, Kate and David have been left with no other choice but to hash out their differences and decide once and for all who should be remembered as the definitive Lisbeth Salander.

DAVID: For me, determining the best Lisbeth Salander is similar to determining the best Spider-Man: Three major actors played the character in a ridiculously short period of time, and all three of them were asked to do radically different things in the role.

Noomi Rapace had the opportunity (and responsibility) to originate the role, and crystallize our idea of who Lisbeth is and what she looks like. Her Lisbeth was the softest and least heightened of them all — a recognizable human being who was slowly whittled into a sharp instrument over the course of three somewhat grounded detective stories. Rapace was never able to make Lisbeth’s Hot Topic style feel like anything more than an affectation, but she seemed to be aware of that; over time, she began to wear those affectations like a suit of armor, allowing Lisbeth to protect herself from years of violent trauma, and fight back against the sinister misogyny she saw in the world.

Rooney Mara is by far the coldest and most hostile of the three Lisbeths, and also (by far) my favorite. Fincher saw the character as a tornado in a snow globe — a tightly repressed Furie in a rigid world of clean leans and inflexible power structures — and Mara ran with that. Hardly just the badass goth hacker chick she used to be, this Lisbeth is a fresh welt surrounded by scar tissue, a brilliant survivor who taps into her trauma like a superpower, only to be tortured by the collateral damage left behind. Mara pierces through layers of affect and rage to create something that’s heightened but indivisibly real. Check out the moment when Lisbeth knocks that guy down on the subway escalator and then takes an extra second just to scream in his face as though tapping into her own twisted form of self-care. It might be the best performance that Fincher has ever directed.

And then we have Claire Foy. Poor Claire Foy. First things first: She’s an extraordinary talent, and one of those English stars who we’ll probably be watching for the next several decades. She does compelling work in a thankless role in “First Man,” and her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth on “The Crown” was one of the most rivetingly internalized performances in television history. In other words, I’m a fan… which makes it harder to tell if she’s terrible in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” or terribly miscast. I think I’m going to go with “both.” On the one hand, she’s totally abandoned by a movie that doesn’t really care about her character: Lisbeth is more of a presence here than she is an actual human being, and it doesn’t help that she’s been reborn as a sorceress who can manipulate every computer screen on Earth just by thinking about it. This Lisbeth is part James Bond and part Ultron — better suited to the MCU than she is to backcountry Sweden — and there isn’t exactly much time for nuance while she’s trying to stop her evil sister from using a doomsday device or whatever.

Kate, tell me I’m wrong.

KATE: David, you’re wrong. While I appreciate your admiration for Mara’s work in just one film and your nuanced reflection on Rapace’s arc (and how it’s become annoyingly out of fashion to let actors actually grow into franchise roles, versus just tossing them out every time the word “reboot” is so much as uttered, which is to say, it’s uttered far too often these days), but you’re wrong.

Or, to be a bit more charitable, not wrong so much as we simply seem to fundamentally disagree on not only Foy’s role in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” but Lisbeth’s, who is finally, finally allowed to be the lead character in a series that has so often ceded its focus to male journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his obsession with her. Álvarez’s film opens at a strange time in Lisbeth’s life: no longer allowed to be a private citizen, a wholly known quantity, and intent as ever on righting a whole mess of wrongs. The opening scene of the film establishes Foy’s Lisbeth bonafides immediately, as she appears out of nowhere to ruin the life of another bad, bad man. It’s the first time I’ve ever been frightened of Foy, but the best part of her performance is that such fear doesn’t carry through the rest of the film. Instead, we get to see Lisbeth in her most human form yet.

You may value Rapace’s slow burn and Mara’s impenetrable coldness, but those are the very elements that always made Lisbeth feel like not so much a person, but a personification of female rage. Of course Lisbeth’s backstory is tragic and horrible — that’s always been a given in the books and films — and of course it’s shaped her in ways that most people could ever imagine, but it’s refreshing to finally see a human underneath all that emotional rubble. I don’t want a Lisbeth who is so unwavering that she can never surprise you, I want to see a Lisbeth who turns her pain into action, even as you know it’s pain.

Yes, Mara’s subway toss is something, but when Foy is literally sucked into a rubber bag and left to writhe in terrible pain and fear, her Lisbeth is allowed to show all the horror and strength that have shaped her, all in one indelible (and, yes, gross, given the parental connotations) image. What about when she finally sees Blomkvist after months apart and manages to convey emotional range across a literal chasm? Or her ravenous appetite for truly terrible food that Foy manages to make look both appealing and repulsive? She may occasionally be saddled with some infallible James Bond-isms — that jump into the tub during a fireball, come on — but the human moments are the ones that set her performance apart. Lisbeth isn’t a superhero, she’s not a super spy, she’s a person, and Foy sells that in a way that we haven’t seen in years.

DAVID: You mention the moment when sees Blomkvist across a literal chasm, but the biggest void in this movie is Blomkvist himself. In my day, we had Daniel Craig taking a dark and gritty vacation from actually playing James Bond. Now, we have a soggy mop of a man who’s too spineless to do right by Vicky Krieps, played by an actor who’s too boring for me to do even IMDb his name. In other words, Lisbeth Salander 3.0 is stuck in a movie that no one — not Foy, nor anyone else — could have saved.

And yet… she still seems totally wrong for the part. Trapped in an imitation of the actresses who came before her, there isn’t a single scene in the movie that doesn’t feel like Foy is just dressing up as Lisbeth Salander for Halloween. She’s never as serrated or wounded or dangerous as either Mara or Rapace — her performance isn’t human enough to make the character real, or extreme enough to make all that black latex feel like anything more than nü-metal nonsense. If such a strong actress can’t salvage Lisbeth Salander, it might just be time to force quit this franchise and let its heroine retire to whatever edge-lord BDSM nightclub she calls home.

KATE: If this franchise needs to retire, it’s not Foy’s fault, it’s because the gas ran out on the series years ago and is simply spinning its (edgy, hip, cool motorcycle) wheels. There are “timely” elements to this story — and, yes, one last time, I think Foy brings them a real humanity and honesty — but they feel shoved into a leather-clad story that mostly resists evolving any other element of its narrative. Even some tattoos fade.

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