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In Birdman, art imitates life as Michael Keaton revives his career playing an actor attempting to revive his career

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Everyone is on top form in Birdman, the dreamy, wordy, black comedy about a washed-up movie star looking for a second act.

The cinematography is endlessly inventive adding another layer to a story so unpredictable that it is never clear from first shot to last what will happen next and, once it has happened, whether it happened at all.

Like crumbling acting curio Riggan Thomson, we may be suffering from hyper-real hallucinations.

Thomson (Michael Keaton) played billion-dollar Birdman back in the day but his success ruined his family and burnt his sensibilities. Now, he wants to know his worth as an artist.

We find him on the brink of comeback (or calamity) with a self-financed Broadway vanity project which sees him write, direct and star in a Raymond Carver adaptation.

An alternative narrative is offered by his resentful post-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone in a spiky cameo).

“You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter – and you know what, you’re right!”

Within the incestuous nature of the production lie the seeds of its potential destruction.

Thomson is on the downside of a relationship with febrile co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) while brittle leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) has introduced brash box-office boyfriend Mike (Ed Norton) into the cast at the last minute. He is only interested in artistic truth, and screw the audience (“popularity is just the slutty little cousin of prestige”) while Thomson needs general and critical acclaim and lots of it.

Malice, vanity, insecurity, bad luck and caustic rancour bedevil the previews.

Thomson and Mike lock horns (hilariously) over matters of integrity and truth but Thomson is forever undercut by his own doubts. His self-loathing even finds a voice in the Birdman character who goads him closer to the edge of breakdown.

In the most affecting (and accomplished) sequences, the delusionary Thomson breaks free from his mid-life crisis and takes to the skies, reminding himself of his youthful cloud-free certainties, now only available at the bottom of a bourbon bottle.

This is a most unusual film. Interesting, hypnotic and unsettling.

The sinuous, invasive hand-held direction of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu adds to a sense of growing menace and tension.

Shot – apparently – in a single take by Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeizk, the film still manages to be disjointed, a feeling of dissonance amplified by the jazz drum score which batters the action with nerve-racked heartbeats.

Keaton, who most memorably marches through Times Square in his tighty-whiteys, inhabits Thomson in a career-reviving performance.

His curmudgeonly portrayal of regret is wonderfully balanced, fighting shy of pantomime and self-pity to and escaping the luvvie confines of the film to say something truthful about missed opportunities and second chances.

Birdman | (15) 119mins | ★★★★✩

Emma Stone

Emma Stone gives an impressive cameo