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Entertainment: Nightmare Alley, review: Bradley Cooper can’t save Guillermo del Toro’s stiff, synthetic thriller

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Early on in Nightmare Alley, when Bradley Cooper’s aspiring con artist is being schooled in the mind-reader’s devious art, his tutor (David Strathairn) gives him an indispensable piece of advice. In every move and mannerism, the seasoned swindler briefs his protégé, “people are desperate to tell you who they are”.

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley - 20th Century Studios © 20th Century Studios Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley - 20th Century Studios

That’s indisputably true of Nightmare Alley’s director Guillermo del Toro – a noted gourmand of the ghoulish and connoisseur of the condemned, whose work has always been steeped in admiration for the monsters and outcasts of cinema’s past. In that respect, his latest is business as usual. As well as being a remake of an especially seamy 1947 noir – or, rather, a new adaptation of the 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel on which it was based – it pays generous tribute to the sorts of films whose names you can imagine the creator of Pan’s Labyrinth used to Tippex onto his school bag.

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Ornamental gardens conjure memories of Last Year at Marienbad; a funhouse curtain of eyes peeps back to Hitchcock’s Spellbound. One of its principal settings, a tattered carnival of rejects and eccentrics, owes a big-top-sized debt to Tod Browning’s transgressive 1932 classic Freaks. But does Del Toro have anything else to tell us apart from what he likes?

For perhaps the first time in his near-three-decade career, it doesn’t seem like it. Del Toro’s first feature since The Shape of Water’s unlikely Oscar-night triumph in 2018 is an act of origami-level homage: it’s all folded together in impressively fiddly ways, but the result is an angular, inert approximation, lacking in the original’s breath or heat. It’s also crisply shot and cartoonishly lit in exactly the same way as Del Toro’s 2013 mechs-and-monsters romp Pacific Rim: entirely the wrong look for a tale riddled with grey areas and grit.

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Its fatal flaw, though, is structural. The script, written by Del Toro and his wife Kim Morgan, divides cleanly in two, but its second half is agonisingly drawn out, and robs the rise-and-fall plot of all the momentum it naturally builds. At two and a half hours, Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is 40 minutes longer than the lean, mean, Tyrone Power-starring 1940s version, despite telling an almost identical story.

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley - 20th Century Studios © Provided by The Telegraph Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley - 20th Century Studios

In place of Power, Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, a drifter with a sinister past. (In a cryptic prologue, we glimpse a swaddled corpse and a cottage wreathed in flames.) Seeking employment, he wanders into a carnival operated by Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe), an old-school showman who gives him work as a stagehand and a bed for the night. Stanton takes to this odd community quickly, and before long is playing assistant to clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette), and flirting with Molly (Rooney Mara), a showgirl whose act involves submitting to massive electrical shocks.

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Between shifts, Stanton learns an intricate mentalism routine devised by Zeena and Strathairn’s Pete, whose own once-considerable talents have been eroded by drink. But Cooper’s hustler on the make is also grimly bewitched by the troupe’s resident geek – a desperate alcoholic who bites the heads off live chickens for a revolted crowd in exchange for slugs of moonshine, laced with opium to keep him doubly hooked. How could a man end up sinking so low? We shall see.

These early scenes work quite well, but it’s when Stanton and Molly take their new mentalism act to the city in order to make their fortune that its noirish languor just starts to feel like dawdling. Into the couple’s lives blows Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), an icy psychoanalyst whose office’s wood-panelled walls resemble Rorschach prints – or was that just me? – and whose records hold all of high society’s darkest secrets.

Stanton persuades Lilith to share these private details in order to juice up the readings in his act: a nasty plot that goes sickeningly wrong. And much else goes wrong besides: Richard Jenkins is badly miscast as the face of fathomless establishment evil, Mara’s character half-evaporates, and the much-touted chemistry between Cooper and Blanchett has an adolescent quality that doesn’t convince. (The hottest pairing here by far is also unfortunately the briefest: Cooper and Collette.) A terrific, despair-drenched final scene is the viewer’s reward for staying the course: pitilessly cruel, spare and shivery, it’s got everything the rest of this strangely stiff and synthetic film lacks.

15 cert, 150 min. In cinemas from January 21

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