By J.S. Porter
For the longest time I chose not to see her on the screen. I knew she was Lisbeth Salander in the American remake of the Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” I didn’t want to see her because Noomi Rapace was so good in the Swedish original.
Besides, you need cold, constant cold, and inescapable white, and long distances between towns and the guttural-sounding Swedish language, instant indicators that tell you this is not the place you live in – or would want to. How dare she reprise the role! How could this dainty-looking wisp reminiscent of the delicacy of a young Audrey Hepburn play the role of a rough, fierce, unkempt anarchist? It would be like reprising Saoirse Ronan’s leading role in “Lady Bird.” You just can’t picture anyone else doing cheek-and-courage quite so well. And so: the cigarette-smoking, motorbike-riding, moody, taciturn Lisbeth belongs to Noomi, doesn’t it?
So, instead of seeing Rooney Mara in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), I saw her in “Carol” (2015) courtesy of Netflix, the story of love and friendship between an older woman (Cate Blanchett) and a younger woman (Rooney Mara).
Again I was mildly outraged. If Cate is in a movie and you’re a woman, you don’t want to share the camera with her. You want to tell the director that your cat died or you have a toothache. You want to come up with a reason for not showing up. If you’ve seen Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” or seen her play Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There” you’ll know what I’m talking about. Of the six actors portraying Dylan, only Blanchett comes close to his androgynous look, his bird-like movement— a bird pecking for seed– his mumbling, sneering voice.
Rooney’s three favourite actors, by the way, are: Cate Blanchett, Marion Cotillard, and Daniel Day-Lewis, acting royalty all. (Maybe boyfriend Joaquin Phoenix is on her list too.)
It took me a little while to warm to Rooney’s performance as Therese Belivet in “Carol.” She is quirky but irritatingly deferential – someone unsure of herself. Cate’s character (Carol Aird) is the epitome –the way she walked, how she smoked, her poise, her posture – of self-assuredness, confidence. She’s prepared to give up everything for love – her status, her family. The heart desires what it desires and Carol desires Therese.
As well as the age difference between them, there is a class chasm: Rooney works in a high-end department store in Manhattan as a sales girl, Cate, in fur, buys expensive things from the same store.
Rooney’s character seems unsure of her sexuality. She doesn’t know how to say no to the pressures around her, but under the tutelage of Cate, she slowly learns to. And in one of the great scenes in recent cinema, when Rooney bounds into a room of men with Cate in the corner, you see how one human being can positively influence another, how one can graciously receive a gift from another. The scene is all movement –Rooney towards Cate — and glances and awe and respect and love.
After watching “Carol,” my wife and I decided to watch “Una,” a film based on the Scottish play “Blackbird” Cheryl and I had seen at Theatre Aquarius a few years ago. (I was still hesitating to see “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”) The storyline –a broken girl and a broken man –works better as a play than a film. The play is more personal, more intense, more devastating. The film distracts a little from the intensity.
A young woman, Una (Mara), shows up unexpectedly at an older man’s workplace. She carries baggage, history, and anger with her. She wants to tell the man how he has ruined her life, how he has betrayed her. As a 13-year-old, she had fallen in love with the man, a friend of her father’s. He had taken advantage of her youth and stolen her innocence. He had gone to jail for having sex with a minor but came out able to rebuild a new life for himself. He has a wife now and a young daughter and a good job. She, on the other hand, has never recovered from her emotional attachment and the feeling of abandonment.
The strength of Mara’s performance lies in its capacity to show love and hate, attraction and repulsion, need and independence in the same moment, emotions contradicting and colliding with each other. You see the hurt in her face and hear the longing in her voice.
I’m now ready for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” If Mara can play Una (2017), she can play Lisbeth. The Dragon film (2011) comes earlier, of course, but not in my viewing.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a story of rape and murder and revenge; it’s a story of Nazis and anti-Semites; it’s a story of determination and the tracking down of leads, with the help of Lisbeth’s computer wizardry. It’s also—and this didn’t hit me the first time around—a love story. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) falls in love with Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) little by little.
You usually think of love as something you share with someone. Mara’s performance makes me think that love is sometimes what you let go of, what you permit someone else to have. In a beautifully sad scene, Lisbeth stands in the darkness watching and listening to Mikael Blomkvist laughing and having fun with his girlfriend. Impulsive and kind by nature, Lisbeth makes the decision to throw the leather jacket she had bought for him in the trash can and mount her motorcycle and ride on.