After Ang Lee’s visually striking, if slightly lightweight version of ‘the unfilmable novel’ Life of Pi last year, comes an even more ambitious adaptation in the shape of the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker’s take on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. A labyrinthine epic spanning six different narratives over a 500-year period, the film has already divided critics and film fans on the other side of the Atlantic following its release last year. The UK finally gets its chance to make up its own mind this week.
Cloud Atlas stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, and Jim Broadbent in various roles across the six storylines. Other actors who appear in at least two (and often more) of the narratives include Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and an often unrecognisable Hugh Grant. Unfortunately, this will be the first sticking point for members of the audience, as the make-up work to enable these actors to appear as such a diverse range of characters is both incredible, and at times horribly jarring. Seeing Hugh Grant as an angry Korean restaurant manager, for example, is possibly the most disturbing cinematic sequence since, well, most of Antichrist. Looking beyond the make-up, some actors handle the range of performances required with more élan than others, with Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent displaying fabulous versatility, while Tom Hanks struggles in a few scenes; particularly as the Irish (possibly?) gangster Dermot Hoggins.
The key for this type of multi-layered film to succeed is that none of the interweaving storylines should bore you, and on the whole this is true of Cloud Atlas. In fact, a number of the strands would make excellent films in their own right. The personal stand-out story for me was the story of Robert Frobisher, a disinherited young libertine (Sturgess) who obtains work as the amanuensis to a world famous composer (Broadbent). Their working arrangement gives Frobisher the time and inspiration to write the Cloud Atlas sextet, a piece of music which echoes throughout the film’s extraordinary score. At times I wanted the film to give this story a little room to breathe and stretch its legs, but as soon as this pre-Second World War environment of duty, honour, and forcibly concealed sexuality got its hooks into you, the film moved onto a different timeline.
There is a huge potential for this to go horribly wrong and it really shouldn’t work, but somehow the Wachowskis and Twyker are performing cinematic alchemy right before our very eyes. On paper, there is so much about this film that shouldn’t work. Tonally, it’s all over the place; one minute you’re watching a farce about pensioners plotting an escape from the nursing home from hell, the next a dystopian science-fiction parable about conformity and rebellion. The editing can be hugely disorientating, sometimes jumping between three or four different narrative strands in a matter of seconds. Everything about this film is exactly what they teach you not to do in film school. And maybe that’s why some people (myself included) will love it.
There are moments I laughed out loud at the sheer lunacy of it all, especially during a frankly bizarre storyline set in the distant future where Tom Hanks and Halle Berry talk in an infuriating patois (“ain’t the tru tru”) and Hugo Weaving turns up an amalgam of Old Gregg and The Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh. I’m still not entirely sure what happened during that period of the film, but it never bored me for a second. And that’s the triumph; in a near three hour running time, with six separate narratives, it never once loses momentum. It is a relentless juggernaut of a film, and afterwards I felt like the victim of an intellectual hit and run.
I still find it hard to recommend though, as I know full well that a great number of people will hate it more than the Wachowski’s Matrix sequels. I just can’t help loving it more than The Matrix.
Cloud Atlas is released nationwide on Friday
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