Cloud Atlas, review
Cloud Atlas is as elaborate as promised: sumptuously realised, and shot with its own unique style, finds Robbie Collin.
Dir: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant.
13 cert, 172 min
How on earth do you map Cloud Atlas? This film, adapted from David Mitchell’s novel, is a sky-popping, cumulonimbic puff of stories, pictures and feelings, almost three hours long, directed by three people, Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, and covering half-a-dozen distinct plot lines smeared across half a millennium.
It takes you from the South Pacific in 1849 to a tropical island time-stamped “106 winters after The Fall”, via 1930s Edinburgh, 1970s San Francisco, present-day London and 22nd-century Seoul. Each of these settings is sumptuously realised, and shot with its own unique style: the London segment feels like an Ealing comedy, while Korea could be an offshoot from the Wachowski siblings’ own Matrix trilogy.
For all these exertions, Cloud Atlas was rewarded with a grand total of zero Oscar nominations, and little wonder: 172 minutes in the company of this monster would have most Academy voters scrabbling for the Panadol.
Where Mitchell’s novel nested its narratives one inside the other, the film cuts between all six quickly and often, bouncing between mirrored dialogue and images. (A dash across a sailing ship’s rigging in 1849 dovetails with a hairy escape across a tightrope-like walkway in Neo Seoul.)Familiar faces yield further echoes. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and the Korean actress Doona Bae each star in a strand in which their character has been branded by fate with a comet-shaped birthmark; elsewhere, in supporting roles in other people’s stories, they are often made up and prosthetised right to the brink of recognisability. In the 1970s plotline, Hugh Grant plays a smarmy energy boss that’s right in his wheelhouse, but flash forward to the post-apocalyptic future and there he is running around in beads and a loincloth, slathered in blood, mud and warpaint.
Well, it’s certainly a blast spotting the links. Ben Whishaw, who gives the film’s richest, most affecting performance as an ambitious composer’s assistant in the 1930s story, also plays a record-shop employee in the 1970s bit, who sells a rare vinyl edition of 1930s-Whishaw’s compositions to Halle Berry’s sleuthing journalist. And Jim Sturgess, a nascent abolitionist in the 1849 tale, becomes a revolutionary who frees clones in future-Korea, even if his yellowface prosthetics make him look rather like a back-row member of a Vulcan boyband.
Tykwer and the Wachowskis have laboured long and hard to turn Mitchell’s very literary material into something cinematic. (In the novel, every story goes on to be 'discovered’, as a book, a set of letters, a film, or even a religion, by a later character.) But in doing so, the subtler points of Mitchell’s book are lost in the visual melee. Other movie hydras — D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance (1916), Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) — use their interconnectedness to tell us wise and wild things, but Cloud Atlas sweats the connections themselves. It may be the most elaborate join-the-dots game ever drafted.