2002’s Insomnia, Christopher Nolan’s follow up to his breakout hit Memento (2000), was at first glance a far less ambitious genre piece. Whereas Memento was noted for its radical narrative innovation with a largely unknown cast, Insomnia was a remake of a Norwegian film from 1997 and starred Hollywood legend Al Pacino. Pacino plays Will Dormer, an LA detective sent upstairs to Alaska on special assignment to solve a murder, but also to get him out of the way of an ongoing Internal Affairs investigation into his handling of a murder case and possible crooked policing.
Accompanied by his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) and aided by a local rookie cop Burr (Hilary Swank), who worships the veteran detective, Dormer is assailed by his own doubt and guilt as well as the eponymous sleep related problem which is obviously exacerbated by the midnight sun of an Alaskan summer. The murder case seems almost irrelevant, as Dormer tries to get some shut eye between arguments with Hap about his impending testimony. But when a stakeout in the fog goes disastrously wrong and Dormer accidentally shoots Hap, he finds himself playing an increasingly compromised game of cat and mouse with the murderer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams).
Although it feels at times like Nolan was a gun for hire (this is the only feature length film he directed where he does not also receive a writing credit), there are definite features in Insomnia that are consistent with his other work. A series of flashbacks in tight close-up only gradually reveal their true relevance, a là Memento. The unreal beauty of the Alaskan landscape is captured by Nolan’s close collaborator, cinematographer Wally Pfister, especially in the opening shots of Dormer’s plane flying over the snowy landscape – Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010) also boast scenes of frozen splendour.
Pacino receives top quality support with a young Hilary Swank and the great but underrated Martin Donovan. Pacino himself is allowed centre stage but delivers a disciplined performance of a man unravelling under pressure of his own legend and his secret past. The rather sleazy misdoings of the original are also swapped for a more comforting sense of noble injustice. Robin Williams’ performance as the nice murderer was the second in a pair of stereotype-busting roles (the first had been in One Hour Photo ) which sought to free the actor from his Patch Doubtfire persona of dewy-eyed hilarity.
Ultimately, Insomnia feels like a filmmaker perfecting his craft. Allowed a larger budget and some big egos to negotiate, Nolan brings home a tight, disciplined, witty piece of work that shows clear links to some of his hugely successful blockbusting efforts.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is due to hit UK cinemas on 20 July. For more info on the film and the Christopher Nolan Season, follow this link.