Ellen Page plays Ariadne in Inception, a young architectural student brought into the project to be an architect of dreams. This is the definition of a thankless role. Her job is to ask questions of Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, so that he can then explain the plot to us. Over and over and over …… and over again. It is hard to justify such dialogue as she is given. She is given no real personality, but she is a gifted screen presence (not sure if I would call her a gifted actress yet – but she very well may have something more valuable), and her life, her emotions, flicker across her face in an undulating wave, making whatever she says seem important and justified. What Ellen Page has is a gift, make no mistake, because Ariadne is a plot device, and that’s all. That’s fine, this is a heist movie, at the heart of it, and deep character motivations don’t necessarily need to come into play, but almost every line of dialogue she has is information-driven. It’s like being given a Narrator part in a big ensemble theatre production. You are there to stand before the closed curtain and give the backstory. Yawn. But she, in Inception, manages to infuse it with life, and heart. The movie did not make the mistake (thank God) of having a developing love interest between Cobb and Ariadne, I was afraid it would go that way, so Ellen Page was at least spared that. She could keep her eye on the ball, which was to keep a close eye on Cobb, and pester him with questions.
I suppose by reviewing the cast I am revealing what I thought of the film, which I found visually really cool (loved Paris folding over into itself, and loved the big empty city at the end) and intellectually thin. The script was awful, unforgivable in parts, really, and the amount of time that needed to be given to continue to reiterate the plot and how “it all” works was just bad screenwriting, plain and simple. It makes good actors look clumsy, and it is a fault of Nolan that he couldn’t realize that. Again, I think Ellen Page lifted herself above the challenges of the script, and managed to seem alive and present, at every moment. The film was over-burdened with urgency, and I felt that her character (with her sense of Cobb and his unresolved issues and how that put them all in jeopardy), was in a state of true urgency. It had an emotional content, her urgency. She didn’t know how his feelings about his dead wife would impact them all, but she knew he needed to work it out and soon, and she was the only one who knew the truth about it. That left her feeling abandoned. Someone else should be in on the secret, right? She was the newbie on the team, it wasn’t right that she should carry that burden by herself.
I have some deeper issues with the dreams themselves in Nolan’s film, and didn’t quite understand why Cobb said to her “Impressive” when all she did was pull two mirrors together to face one another. Seemed pretty workmanlike to me. Maybe she was a fan of Citizen Kane, that shot being a direct steal from CK or Lady From Shanghai, with its final scene in the endless mirror maze. Who knows. The dreams seemed quite literal to me, despite their fantastical imagery (the best part of them), and uninteresting. The shootouts were particularly boring, re-treads of every action movie ever made, but with less purpose and drive. Really? This is what an architect-ed dream looks like?
Ellen Page had an uphill climb with this material, and I have to admit I tuned her out a couple of times because the exposition and the set-up of said exposition was dreadful, obvious, clunky. However, the key for me to the effectiveness of her performance (and it is effective) was the moment she returns to the “dream lab” in the warehouse, after leaving freaked out the first time. What she had seen in the dream-world was captivating, it drew her in, the possibilities, and she just wanted to go back there. That, to me, was the glimmering of an emotional theme in Inception, something Nolan kind of explored, but dropped the ball on: the mesmerizing nature of dreams, and what it would be like if you could get in there and futz around with them. She was freaked out, but she was hooked. She could never forget what she had been shown. She was literally unable to walk away.
Ellen Page’s soft quiet re-entrance into the lab, her face open and almost raw, a look of almost helplessness there – helplessness in the face of her own need – was one of my favorite moments of hers in the film, and made up for much of the “setting up of exposition” dialogue she was forced into.
Her need upset her. She wanted to stay safe, in “real life”. But she couldn’t. One glimpse was not enough. She needed more.