The Acting In Inception: Ellen Page

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.

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40 Responses to The Acting In Inception: Ellen Page

  1. Erik says:

    I so agree with you about the dreams being uninteresting and too literal. It was like Nolan set up interesting *possibilities* that he then never followed through with. Like when the buildings fold into themselves — that was such a striking, effective image, but because we never saw it again it felt like a tutorial on special effects. “Look, we can do this. Now, moving on.” Whereas, that image might have had some emotional heft if it came back at the end — like, what if, during the final dream in the Alps, what if she folded the mountains in an attempt to save him from falling out of that building? Even though he told her not to fuck around with imagery like that? I feel like the movie just lacked a sense of *play* and *improvisation* like that that’s inherent in dreams. That’s what the movie was missing for me. And I felt the absence of that sense of play even more because Nolan has so many great actors at his disposal. (BTW, I love what you said about the moment you realized JGL was a leading man — love him.)

  2. Brendan says:

    I beg to differ! By definition the team are extractors. They want the dreamscapes to be recognizable, realistic…this sets the subconscious of the person inserted at ease and lets their defenses down. I thought it was very plausible and the reason her invention was so impressive for DiCaprio was because he was unnerved by her architecture. This added to the pressure that he’d been under.

  3. sheila says:

    Yeah, I’ve heard that explanation and it makes logical sense. It just made the whole thing a snooze fest to me. I get why the dreams are the way they are – but it seemed the LEAST imaginative way to go.

  4. sheila says:

    I did like that whole scene, with her wandering around, erecting things and messing with the architecture – it is EXACTLY what I would do if I were “in charge” of architecture of the world, and I loved the fun she had in that scene. But I also loved that her face remained almost placid – it wasn’t like she was cackling with glee as she did all this – she was in a state of deep exalted concentration. I liked how she played her part.

  5. sheila says:

    Erik – yeah, I really missed a sense of play. The only one where I felt it is in this scene in question, when she decided, “hmmm, let me fold up Paris” and voila, it occurred. Other than that, it was just so literal. My favorite parts, as I mentioned were the big empty city – and I also loved the snowy fortress – that was pretty spectacular.

  6. Brendan says:

    She was the only one who took me out of the picture…isn’t that interesting? I felt like she resisted the visual world that they were erecting somehow, like Juno kept showing up. Melody said, “If I see another scarf around her neck I’m going to choke her with it.” Ha!

  7. sheila says:

    hahahahahaahahahahaha I love Melody!!!!

    Fascinating, the different responses. I wasn’t going to write about it, but then realized, Uhm, yeah, I have a lot to say. As I mentioned in, I think, the Leonardo DiCaprio post – I thought the performances, across the board, were fantastic. Cillian Murphy, in particular, was very very good (I’ll get to him). But the movie itself left me kind of cold. I thought that was an interesting factor of the film and thought that might be my “way in” to write about it.

  8. Brendan says:

    I haven’t been that excited in a movie theater in a long time. I kept thinking to myself that there was sheer invention happening, that while it did have a lot of the elements of thriller/heist/psychodrama, it also was in uncharted territory in terms of what was actually occurring and what was at stake. And yes, Cillian Murphy was excellent.

  9. sheila says:

    His closeup at the end. Wow!!

  10. Erik says:

    Brendan — I just wish that WITHIN the confines of making the dreamworlds realistic and recognizable, there were more cracks in the wall, more things falling apart, more mistakes being made. I kept praying for someone to accidentally think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. And yes, I realize that it’s a thriller and not a comedy, but at least give me something like a stray horde of elephants! Something to make the final dreams dream-like! That’s what I kept missing.

  11. sheila says:

    I felt it was all very mechanical, and while I understand the reasoning for that, it didn’t work for me. I was bored by the shootouts, and the chases – I liked it when things started falling apart (the towers falling into the sea, stuff like that). Also, where was the sex? A movie that takes place in dreams and there’s no random sex? Like, suddenly Dustin Hoffman is there and he’s having sex with everyone in sight. Like even the extractors are not in charge of their subconscious. This was handled with the DiCaprio character – and the reappearance of his kids, his wife – but even there, it was too literal for me. I was bummed by that.

  12. Erik says:

    If Dustin Hoffman kept appearing as Dustin Hoffman having sex with random people because one of the extractors saw The Graduate on TV the night before, then this would be The Best Movie Ever Made.

  13. sheila says:

    hahahahahahaha

    “Can someone please get Dustin Hoffman out of my dream??? I’m trying to outrace a snow mobile for God’s sake and don’t have time to have sex in the bushes.”

  14. Brendan says:

    But they are all inside the dream so they can’t interact that closely with the dreamer or else the subconscious ejects them. I guess the point for me was that I bought all the way in and wasn’t at all wishing for anything other than what was occurring for me. And it became less and less about dreams and more about DiCaprio’s character attempting to do this highly specialized job while essentially fighting off a nervous breakdown. I actually liked that the dreams had an everyday quality to them, it made sense to me, they more closely resembled dreams to me.

  15. sheila says:

    Bren – I wish I had had that experience. It just didn’t pull me in, therefore I kept waiting for a naked Dustin Hoffman to appear.

    I really liked, however, now that you mention it – the creepy sense in certain scenes that the “dreamer” was aware of what was going on – with all of the dream-extras glancing over at the extractor as they pass by – very creepy. It plays on every moment of paranoia anyone has ever had, where they feel that everyone is talking about them.

    I wish I had believed like you did! I’m glad you did.

  16. Erik says:

    “You never told me that we might get trapped in this dream state!”

    “I DID tell you! But you were too busy having sex with Dustin Hoffman to listen to all of my exposition!”

  17. sheila says:

    “I think we need to take that elevator to the basement. Hopefully Dustin Hoffman WON’T be there. Guy is a pain in the ass.”

  18. Erik says:

    “Whatever you do, do NOT get off on the 4th Floor. There are, like, seventeen Dustin Hoffmans having sex with each other in there. Not a pretty sight.”

  19. sheila says:

    guffawing

  20. Erik says:

    On my dream Netflix que:

    1. Our version of Inception
    2. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Bachelorette version)

  21. sheila says:

    “My name is Ali. I am the current Bachelorette. And my desire for a husband fills me with so much fear that it is EATING MY SOUL.”

  22. Erik says:

    hahahahaha

    The greatest thing about that is that, having watched The Bachelorette, I can TOTALLY imagine Ali saying that. Like, it’s not very far off from the things she actually says!

  23. Brendan says:

    Hoffman crosses a strange city street making out with Jon Voight as a misshapen vehicle almost runs him over.

    “Hey, I’m f*ckin’ here! I’m f*ckin’ here!”

    Leo Dicaprio turns slowly towards the camera.

    “There’s something you should know about me.”

  24. sheila says:

    A deep gritty emotional drama from Rainer Fassbinder, featuring ….. Ali, the Bachelorette.

  25. sheila says:

    Bren – ha!!!

    Then Earnes (Tom Hardy) looks around at the group and demands, angrily, “Who here saw Midnight Cowboy last night??”

    Ellen Page shamefacedly raises her hand.

  26. Erik says:

    That is hilarious, Brendan!

    • Larry says:

      Booooring script. zzzzz….snoozeville.
      Now the Matrix. That’s a different matter.
      Here we’re wishing for criminals to get the money and cash, for what?
      So, DiCaprio can keep being a twit who steals from people in their dreams?

      Matrix was about everlasting love, human evolution, who is God….so many many complexities. I laugh when people say that Inception was complex.
      It’s a caper film. Done very well. Not inventive, but slick and seductive.
      DiCaprio is a wet noodle actor. zzzzz……

  27. sheila says:

    Larry – Hopefully we can have respect for people who have different opinions and responses to this movie.

    I’ve seen how conversations about Inception go on film sites, and how combative people are – the contemptuous TONE they take towards those who liked/disliked the film – and I really want to avoid that on my site.

    Surely we can discuss what we liked/disliked without the sneer.

  28. sheila says:

    That being said, I do agree that its essence is that of a caper film – that’s how I watched it anyway, and the stakes in Inception were not high enough (meaning: what their particular job was). The heist wasn’t as compelling as it should have been (for me) – at least the reasons behind it – although Cillian Murphy’s performance was emotional and connected, and I did invest in his journey, merely because his acting was so heartfelt. Kudos to him. But it wasn’t enough for me.

    And I totally disagree about Leonardo DiCaprio. I’ve always loved that guy!

  29. Desirae says:

    Now when I see this movie I’m going to be disappointed that there are no roving bands of sex-maniac Dustin Hoffmans.

  30. sheila says:

    30 Dustin Hoffmans on careening ski mobiles!!

  31. Erik says:

    1. Oh how I wish all of the men on snowmobiles at the end were played by Dustin Hoffman.

    2. Proof the movie would have benefitted from some Abraham Lincoln too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M6dYiIbRKM&feature=youtube_gdata

  32. Larry says:

    It’s very hard for me to write without a sneer. I’ll try but—
    I’m not that good of a writer.
    But, don’t you think you are being a little over protective, Sheila? I mean I’ve slinged hash on plenty of blogs and FB pages, but that was hardly worth a wrist slap, don’t cha think?
    You, SHeila… have written a beautiful dissertation about the acting in Inception, which I think is far more interesting than the film itself. The fact that you love DiCaprio so much amazes me, and depresses me a little since…well, because I know how vast your knowledge of cinema is. You have posted some amazing posts over the years about so many great classic films. The fact that Leonardo can be the success that he is….and that you qualify him as one of the greats of American cinema, well….it baffles me.
    But like/ dislike of tone and style in a performance is a matter of taste. I love and am obsessed with sad pop ballads from the 70′s, and 80′s, truly!!! and I’ve sang every one of them from my youth- verbatim, tearfully mouthing them in a mirror….so, tastes? Yeah, go figure.

    I just think, LD,…. he’s a cutie, and a very cinematic actor who has complete control of the camera in his takes. That I’ll give him. And the camera looooves Leonardo. I can always see the work, that’s my thing in watching great movie actors…Do you see the work? And another tell tale sign is there’s no humor in his takes.
    He’s not funny which means he’s not being totally human in his choices….life is always a little funny and absurd. no sense of absurdity in that guy. That’s how he falls on my tastebuds. Empty calories.

    But the real culprit in the mediocrity of American cinema is the American public who go to experience films, such as Inception, as pure escapism. And Nolan has his finger on the pulse of that need to escape. Inception looked amazing. His casting is fantastic….but the dreamscapes of imagination were clearly un-imaginable and the cleverness of the idea of this movie just puttered out as it blandly turned into a not so complex caper idea with great special effects, and a story that did NOT move me in anyway besides the normal shifting in my seat which i always do or else my blood pools in my calves and they fall asleep.

    Hey, Nolan…is a bazillionaire success….He obviously made an entertaining movie that appeals to the masses. One of the top movies of the year in selling popcorn but…
    Listen, I’m too lazy and not a good enough of a writer to express all of my points here so …so , that’s why I attack in little snarky comments. That is what makes me a mediocre, yes mediocre blog poster-er.

    But, your readers can handle some snarky dissention and saracasm….if you want to review my earlier post…..Hey, I know Brendan is good for a snarky round or two, before we really get into a barn burner….but, I know it’s your blog and you responded to mine rather early in the morning maybe without your coffee or you’re just hurt that I took a pot shot at Mr. DiCaprio. I get it.

    But, know Sheila— I appreciate your column’s discussion and think it is waaaay more interesting than that movie. So….so, sew buttons.

    Have you seen “I am Love”??? Would love to hear your thoughts of what I believe is the movie of the year, so far. ; )

  33. sheila says:

    Larry, you know i love you. It wasnt at all the comment on leo. It was the comment about laughing at people who found the movie deep. Thats all. I agree with your assessment of the movie and about nolan. I also think the acting in inception is certainly the most interesting part of the whole thing which is why i wanted to do this series. Its a strange situation. I was quite bored by the movie yet i could tell the acting was good. And as for leo, i dont know, i just buy him. Even in not so good pictures. But i have certainly heard others say what you say about him. I probably am too protective. Im sorry. Long experience of the web. I’ll try to relax.

  34. sheila says:

    And i am dying to see ‘i am love’! maybe this weekend!

  35. Larry says:

    A.O. Scott says it better than me…..:
    “But though there is a lot to see in “Inception,” there is nothing that counts as genuine vision. Mr. Nolan’s idea of the mind is too literal, too logical, too rule-bound to allow the full measure of madness — the risk of real confusion, of delirium, of ineffable ambiguity — that this subject requires. The unconscious, as Freud (and Hitchcock, and a lot of other great filmmakers) knew, is a supremely unruly place, a maze of inadmissible desires, scrambled secrets, jokes and fears. If Mr. Nolan can’t quite reach this place, that may be because his access is blocked by the very medium he deploys with such skill.
    And the limitations of “Inception” may suggest the limits not only of this very talented director, but also of his chosen art form at this moment in its history. Our dreams feed the movies. The movies feed our dreams. But somehow, our imaginations are still hungry.”—nytimes.

    And yes, Sheila, I love you tooo ; )….and I have to watch my inner snarky self.
    It get’s me into trouble…

    “I am love” wow….take it in like a fine meal. I wish I could watch it for the first time again.

    I’m waiting for your insights and am a little pissed that you haven’t seen it yet and written something already. What are you doing???

    And,…..and if you hate I Am Love, and trash this masterpiece…..I…I… I will probably jump from my imagined hotel room in our shared mind and you can feign a half scream while covering your mouth in mock horror as I slo mo scream fall and descend to the pavement and splat to my fake but real imagined death below.

    But I will somehow live on…..in a locked basement which is really that hotel where I jumped from, but it’s really a basement and you will have to explain yourself over and over about why you hated the best film of the year, and you will have to explain forever, and we will grow old together, while you explain, and I snarkily protest..and this will go on and on and on…with some loud music playing to tell you how to feel about our ridiculous predicament…for the rest of our 3 layered imagined- cracked the safe code aren’t we great criminals—Lives– where Tom Beringer will make a bloated yet strangely touching cameo that is, — pretty damn good.

  36. sheila says:

    “my fake but real imagined death” hahahahaha Now that is “acting” in a nutshell!

    And I will not watch you plummet to your imaginary/real dreamspace death, because I will be busy having sex with the hordes of Dustin Hoffmans running me down.

    I very much agreed with AO Scott’s criticisms of the film – thought it was VERY insightful. I liked Stephanie Zacharek’s review as well, in that she expressed my problems with Inception very well:

    http://www.movieline.com/2010/07/review-is-inception-this-years-masterpiece-dream-on.php

    I know, I know, I am so behind on my current-day moviegoing!! It is unforgivable. So much to see, so little time. I love Tilda Swinton desperately so I am really excited to see this film.

  37. sheila says:

    // you will have to explain yourself over and over about why you hated the best film of the year//

    hahahahaha

  38. Jen W. says:

    Ha, I heard that this movie wasn’t really about dreams because there were no naked people in it.

  39. sheila says:

    hahaha Yeah, where are all the boobies and cocks, I ask you?

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