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Nolan's dream world is a puzzler

As a director Christopher Nolan has always been drawn to themes of deception and playing tricks with his audience's notion of how a narrative should play out.

His little-seen debut, Following, shot at weekends while he was still a film student in London, twisted too much for its own good but still showed great promise, while his breakthrough movie, Memento, took the debut's obsession with flashbacks and gave us a potentially head-wrecking piece of work which actually unfolded backwards.

The remake of Insomnia and the sleight-of-thought of The Prestige allowed him further scope to explore ways to keep audiences guessing but it's the huge box- office success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight which has allowed him the financial clout to be able to work off a $170m budget for this mind-mangling epic.

Inception is a visually dazzling piece of work, with Nolan supervising some spectacular set-pieces and an array of stunning sets. He's tried to keep CGI to a minimum with the result that the movie somehow manages to feel realistic, even though it mostly takes place in the subconscious of its characters. And that is where the film's biggest problems arise.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief-for-hire who works for corporations and specialises in stealing ideas and information by infiltrating the dreams of his employers' competitors. It's an interesting idea, certainly, and one which takes a further twist when he's hired by businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) to take his talents further by planting an idea in the subconscious of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) which will be to Saito's benefit in a few years' time. The carrot dangled in front of Cobb being his return to the States to be reunited with his children.

Convinced that he'll be up to it, Cobb sets about putting together a team for this difficult job, including his regular sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page), a girl who's an expert in mazes and whose task it is to construct the mental worlds they will need to enter in order to entrap Fischer.

However, the crew (including Tom Hardy) aren't fully aware that Cobb has his own reasons for going into deep levels of dreams and is haunted by memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) which could put the whole operation in jeopardy.

Thus we head into the rabbit hole of the subconscious and a story which deals with dreams within dreams within dreams.

Earlier this year DiCaprio starred in Martin Scorsese's at times bewildering Shutter Island, but that plot feels like the Lumiere Brothers' L'Arrivee d'un Train compared to the goings-on here.

The character of Ariadne (named after the figure in Greek myth who helped Theseus escape the labyrinth) appears to exist solely in order that Cobb can explain to her -- and us -- what's going on and, even with that vital help, there were times here when I was barely hanging on by my fingertips as alternate realities overlap with each other and time moves at different rates in each of them.

It's an undeniably great cast and all the action sequences are impeccably delivered but you can't help but wonder if Nolan knows what he's aiming for here or whether Inception is just an elaborate and expensive version of an imaginative school essay which ends: "And then I woke up. It had all been a dream."

Indeed, were you to watch this film after a hard day's work and a couple of pints, fall asleep during it and have a wee dream of your own, would that add a truly interactive element to the whole Inception experience?

Sweet dreams