Has Scorsese lost the plot?

The great director's latest film, which is premiering in Berlin next week, is likely to leave fans disappointed
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The Independent Culture

With 15 Oscars and nine Golden Globes cluttering his sideboard, Martin Scorsese is a titan of American cinema.

From Mean Streets (1973) to Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982), GoodFellas (1990), Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006) which won him Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, he's built up a body of work that fairly bulges with achievement. He does violence with a heart, killing with a conscience and guilt with a capital G. His dramatis personae are gangsters and cops, sociopaths and angelic blondes, three-time losers and desperate outsiders. His art is harsh-textured, and full of integrity. For many, he is the pre-eminent modern director, truer than Spielberg, saner than Coppola, more grown-up than George Lucas or Peter Jackson or James Cameron. In a 2007 poll of the greatest directors of all time in Total Film magazine, he came second, behind Hitchcock.

Obviously, a new work from the great man will have the cinema-going audience writhing with expectation. And Shutter Island, his 21st feature, which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival later this month, can boast a fine pedigree. It's adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, who wrote Mystic River (filmed by Clint Eastwood) and Gone, Baby, Gone (filmed by Ben Affleck). It stars Leonardo DiCaprio (his fourth collaboration with Scorsese), Sir Ben Kingsley, Max Von Sydow and Emily Mortimer. The music is by Robbie Robertson of The Band, whose final concert was filmed by Scorsese as The Last Waltz, and it's edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, the director's long-term collaborator, who has been nominated for four Oscars. When it opens in Berlin we can confidently predict rave reviews and cheering crowds, can't we?

Perhaps. But some Scorsese devotees will sit as I did at an early screening, stunned in their seats, and wordlessly mouth the sentiment; what on earth was the great Marty doing, directing this tripe? It is a grinding disappointment to find the master of grittily poetic realism apparently borrowing the tactics, not of Hitchcock, but of the one-trick prestidigitator, M Night Shyamalan.

It starts off very promisingly. Out of the fog of Boston Harbour in 1954, a police boat appears, bearing two US marshals to the titular island, a maximum security lunatic asylum. Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his sidekick, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), are investigating the disappearance from Ward C of an inmate, Rachel Solando, who murdered her three children. Arriving, they encounter an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion. The armed screws bully them; the asylum director Cawley (Kingsley) refuses them access to the staff's files; the island's governor (Sydow) appears to be an escaped Nazi and one of the inmates, while giving her evidence, silently writes "RUN" on Teddy's spiral notepad. This island is not, frankly, a barrel of laughs. Teddy, meanwhile, had problems of his own. We learn that his wife has died in a fire, started by an arsonist who is also, coincidentally, a patient in the asylum. Oh, and we know Teddy has hog-whimpering migraines, partly the result of the memories burned on his brain by his visit, when serving in the US army, to the Dachau extermination camp in 1945.

Viewers, therefore, have a lot to juggle, mentally. Also in the mix is the menacing Dr Cawley's hints that some odd experiments are being carried out nearby. And a hurricane is approaching, that will jeopardise the ferry and leave them trapped. The disappeared Rachel suddenly returns. Teddy's migraines get worse. Dr Cawley recommends (heh-heh-heh) some medicine...

It's awful. It's not just full of ridiculous clichés of 1950s movies (when a psychiatrist routinely used to appear, like in Psycho, to explain the oddness of the human mind), it features the most enormous "twist" seen in the movies since Shyamalan's The Village. OhMiGod, you mean all this time this whole thing has been...? Don't tell me the nursing staff knew all along about... And the chap I thought was the killer was, in fact...

Oh please. This isn't what we go to Marty Scorsese for. I spent the final half hour praying the director would turn the whole thing round and reveal that The Twist was in fact a postmodern joke. It wasn't. And when, in the last 10 minutes, one of the central figures starts drawing on a blackboard to explain the plot to the especially slow-witted, you know the film is in deep trouble.

The reason seems blindingly obvious. Martin Scorsese is a genius at evoking character. Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Alice in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, Henry Hill in GoodFellas – these are paradigms of Scorsese casting, and the films are stories of their development or degeneration. In Scorsese movies, plots usually come second to characterisation: sometimes the films end in a simple hail of bullets (Taxi Driver) or just peter out in a string of arrests (GoodFellas). But you never forget the people, their macho posturing, their self-delusion, their Catholic guilt about instigating personal moral codes.

In Shutter Island, sadly, there's so much plot the characters haven't room to breathe. Once The Twist has done its work, you lose interest in what happens to Teddy Daniels and begin to be distracted by stray questions: Why are the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" seen over the gate of Dachau? (Shouldn't that be Auschwitz?) Why, at the end, does the costume designer clothe Mark Ruffalo and Max Von Sydow in gorgeous modern suits, as if by Lagerfeld or Boateng, when the film's set in the 1950s? Why are there so many rats in a seaside cave? And what will it take to remind Scorsese that he is a master cartographer of the dark human heart, and should be above directing narratives with a gigantic, knock-'em-dead handbrake turn in the middle of the narrative? He should leave that to lesser directors, with the word "Night" in their names.