Saturday, 2 October 2010


The big problem with adapting to film any story which withholds crucial information as a key device is maintaining the secret, the illusion which drives the story's twist. It can be desperately hard to do; think of Angel Heart as a prime example. In Shutter Island, to which I've finally caught up, the deftness with which Martin Scorsese illuminates the depths of Teddy Daniels' psyche merely serves to reveal, alarmingly early, what is going on, that the threats he (and more importantly we, the audience) experiences are internal.

At times, Scorsese, who seems to draw on any number of cinematic references throughout the film, almost restages Marat/Sade, which may, in the end be the best reference for this version of Dennis Lehane's much more low-key novel. Robert Richardson's camera moves with the kind of fluidity you expect in Scorsese, drawing out the shadows and the horror-movie iconography as if charting the actual inside of Daniels' damaged mind (think of Roger Corman's House Of Usher). It's probably no coincidence that Scorsese produced a 2007 documentary about Val Lewton's RKO horror pictures, which depend more on mood and psychological drama than actual physical schocks. And of course there's more than little Alfred Hitchcock here; although Robbie Robertson's score is composed of found music, much of it 20th century classical, it is often amplified to almost hysterical levels, in a way that recalls, as I'm sure it was meant to, Bernard Herrmann working for Hitchcock.

Scorsese remains faithful to Lehane's novel, but is able visually to draw out the business of Daniels' having bee with the soldiers who liberated Dachau. But there's a strange disconnect, between the horror of the Holocaust, the fear of nuclear destruction (classic 1950s sf paranoia) Jackie Earle Haley rants about, and the actual killings that form the heart of Daniels' personal tragedy. I found myself constantly trying to fit the jigsaw pieces of trauma together (and Max Von Sydow, as the almost cliched Nazi scientist has a small lecture of trauma and dream, which would be where even the slowest member of the audience would finally pick up the hints) but failing.

Von Sydow relishes his role, but the film is stolen in some ways by Mark Ruffalo, who seems to physically transform himself depending on which role he is playing to Teddy, and by some of the players in smaller parts, notably Ted Levine, as the warden, and Patricia Clarkson, as one of the two versions of Rachel, the disappeared patient Teddy has come to the island's hospital for the criminally insane to find. It's awkward that Ben Kingsley is always doing exposition and trying to look nervous, and that John Carroll Lynch as the deputy warden appears to channelling Danny Aiello. Rachel Williams is sometimes badly judged as his dead wife; Teddy's description of her is far more chilling than any attitude she can muster. But the other difficulty is Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to have brought along his bad faux-Bahstan accent from The Departed to play the same character he played in Revolutionary Road, with the same problem of believablity as a grizzled 1950s WWII veteran. He just doesn't have the matter-of-fact gravitas you'd expect from the era; more Tony Curtis than Richard Conte.

Scorsese, although this is DiCaprio's film, taking place within Teddy's head, never actually lingers there too long. In the end, that's why the movie works well as it does, because he's taken the Brian DePalma-like decision to make us the character, and let us experience what's happening to Teddy, and try to make sense of it. That we can figure it out, and still not make sense, still feel caught up by the swirling morass of his sanity, is a tribute to his immense skill as a film-maker.

Shutter Island (2009) directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis from the novel by Dennis Lehane

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