I read Dennis Lehane’s ‘Shutter Island’ either towards the end of last year or earlier this year. As I neared the end of the thriller, I started thinking that the story was perfectly suited to a movie. And then, a few weeks later, I learnt that Martin Scorsese had already adapted the book into a screenplay and I started looking forward to the movie.
So, now I’ve seen the movie and, as with his previous film, ‘The Departed’, I am disappointed. Although this disappointment may be influenced by the fact that I recently read the book, here I try to explain my response.
The movie opens with a white screen as the ferry bringing Ted Daniels and Chuck Aule to Shutter Island passes through the fog that metaphorically represents the unclear world the two will be wading through once they’re on the Island. I thought this was clever and that the bright white of the fog and the bland grey of the sky and the ferry worked well for what I knew lay ahead. Once we make it through the fog onto the deck, we meet our two main characters watching the approaching island. When the captain ominously warns them about the approaching storm we are treated to a sweeping aerial shot that flies towards Shutter Island. I loved this shot and it moved us very quickly to the main location and into the main story, the only story. The Shutter Island that Scorsese had created was very close to the Shutter Island I had created in my imagination – the buildings, the guards, the nurses, the orderlies, the activities.
I know that if Scorsese’s Shutter Island had been very different from my Shutter Island this would have posed its own problems. As it is, though, our Shutter Islands are rather similar. I don’t think that it is the similarity that prevented me from being drawn into the film, I think it is more likely the fact that I know the story too well and was watching the film to make sense of the choices Scorsese had made.
Another thing that troubled me about the film – and that I am only articulating to myself now as I write – is that it is almost too perfectly made. The 1950s, when the story is set, is often presented as a time that was very much about sparkling appearances with dark secrets bubbling underneath the surface. Shutter Island the film is true to this and maybe this is the problem. Even though there is a violent storm at the beginning of the film, the little Shutter Island bubble remains neat: the cracked tree tunks are neat and there is very little evidence of havoc wreaked by the storm. The beds in the bunker where everyone bunks the night of the storm are also very neatly lined up and there is little chaos within this shelter. Teddy Daniels scales the cliffs of Shutter Island with nary a scratch to be found on his person, nevermind that scaling those cliffs are near impossible. Okay so the violent inmates break free, but even this is directed in a way that it does not look like close to all hell has broken loose. Maybe this is the genius of Scorsese? I don’t know if this is what he wanted, but it seems a bit too polished to be real. Of course I don’t mean documentary real, I mean it doesn’t create a real enough sense of the imperfect real world to convince me to suspend my disbelief and step into the film as if I were there.
As Martin Scorsese has been making films longer than I have been alive, it is no surprise that he is able to use the tools of the trade to masterful effect and construct perfect shots and beautiful pictures for us to look at. Throughout the film Scorsese also made use of the slightly high angled shot as he followed our main characters about, giving one the sense that something beyond their knowledge was happening, or that someone knew more than they did. Another shot that surprised and excited me was the ocean’s point of view shot of Ted Daniels in the orderly’s white uniform diving into the sea. The sequence begins with Ted on the rocky shore, he lifts off, we cut into the ocean’s pov as Daniels flies over the camera, and then we cut back to the observer’s perspective from the shore as he slices into the sea. The white outfit flying through the cloudy white sky and then cracking into the white-grey sea made me catch my breath.
Then there are the characters. Ted Daniels as played by Leonardo Cappucino, was all acting and very little character. I snorted during the scene where he discovers the drowned children, drags them one-by-one into his arms, cut to an aerial shot of the water rippling ever wider around the destroyed family and Cappucino opens his mouth to scream that cliched Hollywood, “Noooooo,” as he throws his head back towards the heavens. I expected more.
Cappucino’s accent did not work for me. I was told by my Slacking companion that it was meant to be Bostonian, but the pronunciation of ‘marshall’ (with the first ‘a’ as the ‘u’ in club) and ‘escaped’ (as exscaped) kept sticking in my ear. It was as if those were the two words he had practised and so they had to make sure they got them in the script frequently enough, so we could hear that he really was from Boston.
Overall, it was hard to believe that Cappucino had made it to the point where he inhabited the character and became the character. He still had a few rehearsals to go.
And Mark Ruffalo? He wore this pained Bruce Willis expression through most of the film. I used to like him – especially after ‘In the Cut’ – but I will have to revisit my opinion of his acting.
But maybe, all this does is expose how far I still have to go as a director. I mean if the film works for most, especially for those who haven’t read the book, then Scorsese has done a great job of distancing himself from the script and the plot and of being able to judge whether the characters and the set are as they’re supposed to be.
And this has nothing to do with it, but as this is a blog, not a formal remunerated article, here is something I always wondered, which would be a question directed at Dennis Lehane, not at Martin Scorsese: why give the protagonist such an odd name, like Andrew Laeddis. Is Laeddis a common name in the States? It seems to me that Laeddis would be more suited as the made-up name and Daniels as the genuine name.