Film: Nightmare Alley seduces the eyes with glorious production and costume design

Rooney Mara as Mary Elizabeth Cahill and Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle in Nightmare Alley
Rooney Mara as Mary Elizabeth Cahill and Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle in Nightmare Alley


NIGHTMARE ALLEY (15, 150 mins) Thriller/Romance. Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Mark Povinelli, Holt McCallany. Director: Guillermo del Toro

IN the misery-soaked opening section of Guillermo del Toro’s noir thriller, adapted by the Oscar-winning Mexican director and Kim Morgan from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, a booze-sodden, retired mentalist warns the slippery anti-hero to steer clear of clairvoyance.

“No good comes out of a spook show,” he blathers, hungover.

His lamentable warning falls on deaf ears, on screen and off.

The charlatan protagonist falsely communes with the dead to exploit paying customers’ grief and del Toro tethers a starry cast, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Willem Dafoe, to a tawdry tale of duplicity and avarice that runs dry of tension before the tangled plot enters its third languid hour.

This Nightmare Alley doesn’t have to jump through censorship hoops like the 1947 film version headlining Tyrone Power as the seedy carnival worker destined for an almighty fall from grace.

Here, a teasing glimpse of full-frontal male nudity in a steaming bathtub and some suggestive soaping secure a 15 certificate almost as much as spurts of stomach-churning violence including an inglorious end for a live fowl and a human skull crushed in queasy close-up.

Fantastical, otherworldly elements, a signature of del Toro’s earlier work including Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape Of Water, are all smoke and mirrors and the con feels like it may be on us to muster concern for underwritten doomed characters as that headless chicken comes home to roost.

Cooper lacks menace and is, to quote Collette’s bogus medium, simply “easy on the eyes, honey”.

Thankfully, Blanchett slinks delectably through the second half as a femme fatale psychologist, who has accumulated enough personal secrets about her clientele to keep herself in velvet capes until the soft lighting dims.

Stanton Carlisle (Cooper) joins a carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Dafoe) and learns tricks of the trade from fading double act Zeena and Pete Krumbein (Collette, David Strathairn).

The newcomer beguiles naive showgirl Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) and the lovebirds run away from Clem, and the protection of strong man Bruno (Ron Perlman), to establish themselves as a speciality act at the Copacabana club in Buffalo, New York.

A diabolical deception involving Dr Lilith Ritter (Blanchett) and her former patient, powerful industrialist Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), is a swindle too far for Stanton.

“If your foot slips, we both fall,” Lilith sternly reminds the chancer.

Nightmare Alley seduces the eyes with glorious production and costume design but the heart goes a-wanting, despite simmering sexual tension between Cooper and Blanchett (“I know you’re no good. I know that because neither am I!”)

Pacing is pedestrian and only shifts out of first gear in a breathless closing act that serves its just desserts chilled and with a grimace.

3 stars

A JOURNAL FOR JORDAN (12A, 131 mins)

OSCAR-winning actor Denzel Washington settles into the director’s chair for the first time since Fences in 2016 to helm a romantic drama adapted by Virgil Williams from Dana Canedy’s celebrated memoir A Journal For Jordan: A Story Of Love And Honor.

Senior New York Times editor Dana (Chante Adams) is pregnant when her husband, First Sergeant Charles Monroe King (Michael B Jordan), is deployed to Iraq.

She gives him a journal and encourages Charles to escape from the horrors of conflict in those empty pages by writing words of wisdom to his infant son.

The book is gradually filled with love and advice for the boy, emphasising the importance of family to overcome adversity.

This handwritten testament becomes a beacon of hope for Dana in her darkest hours and allows her to revisit her unlikely love story and share in Charles’s devotion to their marriage and child.


AHEAD of the 60th anniversary of American rock band The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road is an affectionate and personal documentary which celebrates the life and career of one of the group’s co-founders.

Directed by Brent Wilson (no relation), the film embarks on a literal and metaphorical road trip through Brian’s hometown accompanied by more than 30 hits, including God Only Knows, Good Vibrations and Wouldn’t It Be Nice, as well as rare tracks and previously unheard demos.

Personal home movies and photo albums chronicle Wilson’s life in music alongside his struggles with mental illness.

His enduring impact on the music industry is reflected in glowing testimonials from fellow musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Nick Jonas.

CICADA (15, 97 mins)

BROOKLYN-based film-maker Matt Fifer makes his feature debut behind and in front of the camera with a romantic drama about a generation of young men bearing deep psychological wounds.

Co-directed by Kieran Mulcare and co-written by fellow actor Sheldon D Brown, Cicada centres on 30-something New Yorker Ben (Fifer), who is stuck in a rut.

Relationships are an unedifying cycle of meaningless hook-ups, which he relives in uncomfortable sessions with free-spirited therapist Sophie (Cobie Smulders).

A handsome stranger called Sam (Brown) strolls into Ben’s world and the two men form an immediate and intimate connection.

Balmy summer nights are spent in each other embrace, slowly dismantling emotional defences.

Painful secrets are exposed and both Ben and Sam must confront their demons with uncompromising honesty if they are to truly let the other person in.