Cast your minds back, if you will, to 2005, when Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was released.  It was obviously awaited with keen anticipation – it’s a Batman film for Chrissake, the most compelling and realistic of all the major superheroes – but Nolan was mainly known amongst cinephiles for his excellent American debut Memento and his slightly less excellent, but still very good, Hollywood film Insomnia. Therefore, the billing ‘A Christopher Nolan film’ seemed more studio politics than a genuine statement of auteur intent.

How times change, and how quickly. Now, a mere five years later, Nolan has made a further three films – no Kubrickian 12 year hiatuses here – including the film that put him at the top of the Hollywood tree, the deliciously dark and operatic The Dark Knight. It’s fair to say that his latest, Inception, has been awaited with all the eagerness of a scrumpy drinker waiting for the apple harvest, and now, finally, it’s here. So has Nolan disappeared up himself and broken his run of excellent, thought-provoking and genre-defying films?

The short answer is no. Future viewings will tell exactly how good Inception is – it’s certainly not flawless, and though it’s probably a better film than The Dark Knight, it lacks a single performance of the deranged charisma and magnetism of Heath Ledger’s Joker. What it does, without a shadow of a doubt, is to confirm Nolan’s status as probably the leading filmmaker of his generation, someone as comfortable making visual allusions to Bacon and Escher as he is with co-ordinating epic,race-against-time set-pieces which play like the next generation of Bourne, Bond and the Matrix.

To reveal too much of the plot would be unfair. The bare bones are these. Cobb (Leonardo diCaprio) is an ‘extractor’, someone working illegally to enter people’s minds and obtaining information from them. When an extraction involving businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) goes wrong, he finds himself compelled to perform an act of industrial espionage involving Murdoch-esque businessman Fischer’s (Pete Postlethwaite) son Robert (Cillian Murphy), known as ‘inception’, and so called because the process involves planting an idea rather than removing one. Assembling a team including ‘architect’ Ariadne (Ellen Page), men-of-action Arthur and Eames (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), Cobb prepares for an insanely difficult and complex task, not least because he is haunted by visions of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose death may in some way be linked to his latest task.

Such a synopsis doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Nolan has come up with. Writing his script solo rather than with his brother Jonathan, it contains all his hallmarks – warped chronology, some welcome touches of throwaway wit, portentous lines of dialogue repeated at significant points in the action (this time, it’s the line about ideas being the most resilient parasite) and genuinely compelling characterisation. He’s helped, of course, by a fantastic cast, with stand-outs including Hardy (apparently doing an audition for Bond should Daniel Craig tire of the role), the extremely suave Murphy and Watanabe and, of course, DiCaprio, whose presence in a film these days is all but a guarantee of quality. Technical credits – including predictably superb photography by Nolan regular Wally Pfister and an epic, booming score by Hans Zimmer – are all top-notch.

It’s fascinating to compare this to the not dissimilar Shutter Island, but while that (excellent) film presented fantasy and dreams as threatening portents of psychosis, the unreal world created here works on all bets being off, with the grand finale revolving (entirely comprehensibly) around layers of dreams within dreams, to dizzying but thrilling effect. There are moments where the entire edifice teeters on the edge of absolute ridiculousness, such as the way in which characters are revived from their sleep by the (surely Cotillard-referencing?) use of Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien, but Nolan’s directorial touch is sufficiently sure to avoid the bathetic overkill that a lesser filmmaker would almost certainly have succumbed to.

I’m not at all sure that this will be the mega-hit many are expecting it to be. It’s unashamedly cerebral in both its execution and its themes, and although the action scenes are breathtaking and hugely accomplished, this is less a big summer blockbuster than a deeply personal meditation on dreams, death and the illusory power of the mind. That said, this is still spectacularly accomplished cinema, and a film that will lend itself to repeated viewings and much discussion. For starters – what, exactly, is the inference of the last shot?


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