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Films: Shutter Island * * *

(thriller. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams. Directed by Martin Scorsese. cert 15A)

One would imagine that the prospect of Martin Scorsese's first feature since his Oscar-winning The Departed, where he's not only reunited with Leonardo DiCaprio but working off a best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane (whose last two adapted works, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, have yielded outstanding results), would have had the suits at Paramount beside themselves with joy.

And yet Shutter Island has had its release put back for nearly a year, missing out on an Oscar push and causing suspicions that either the studio thought Scorsese had delivered a movie which would be hard to sell or the project was simply a disaster. Mercifully it's more the former than the latter.

Lehane's novel certainly isn't quite as straightforward as Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone, gritty works about terrible crimes committed in the working-class milieu of contemporary South Boston. Instead it's set in the 50s as a pair of Federal Marshals investigate the disappearance of a female prisoner at an offshore asylum for the criminally insane.

Right from the off Scorsese is on top form, showing us Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) aboard a ferry looming through a Stygian fog towards the forbidding rock of the title. The sense of foreboding is established from the opening frames, with the ominous classical soundtrack and the island growing larger in the distance recalling a variety of classic thrillers and horror movies. That sense of unease continues as the pair try to discover how the woman apparently disappeared from a locked cell, all the while sensing that the staff are holding something back.

Scorsese then starts to let rip as Daniels and Aule get to meet the psychiatrists in charge of the facility (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow), a major storm cuts off the island, and we move into 'big, dark, scary house' mode. At this point the director appears to be making a homage to vintage horror movies (and a very good one at that) but, as we discover more about Daniels' past -- particularly his memories of liberating Dachau concentration camp and the death of his wife -- the film changes tack and veers into more psychological territory, with various veiled clues as to what's really going on provided by brief appearances from the likes of Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson.

The viewer is fed curveballs of all sorts and you'll need to keep your wits about you. Scorsese's way of suckering the viewer in via the gothic elements before taking us somewhere else entirely is masterful sleight-of-hand storytelling and Leonardo DiCaprio has developed a thoroughly commanding screen presence, all traces of the callow youth of Titanic now replaced by a masculinity which is moody and menacing when required.

The trailers are promoting Shutter Island as a thriller with horror overtones but within this at times fiendishly complicated movie the mind games might not be to everyone's taste. HHHII