I was prompted to dust this off after hearing Hugh Grant interviewed by Simon Mayo on the BBC’s ‘flagship film programme’ Wittertainment. The actor was promoting The Rewrite, the latest in a long line of romantic comedies that have traded upon his charming, stuttering, upper class screen persona without stretching him as an actor. During the interview he was asked about the failure of Cloud Atlas and expressed his disappointment that the film had failed to find an audience. Certainly it is undeniable that the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of David Mitchell’s bestselling novel was a box office disappointment that largely baffled audiences and critics alike. And yet, I have watched this 172 minute film half a dozen times since its release, and for me it gets better and richer with each viewing.
Cloud Atlas is a film of towering ambition weaving together multiple narrative threads of different colours and weights over a period spanning (something like) 400 years from the 19th century to the distant future. Actors may be the hero in one story, the villain in another, or just a bit player in the next; players change nationalities, races, in some cases genders between the stories. The cast play their parts in a range of acting styles from realism to broad caricature. It is unsurprising that the film met with such bewilderment in some quarters, and such wonder in others.
The six stories that make up the film each have a distinctive genre. There is: an historical adventure of far away lands and nautical peril; an early twentieth century drama of forbidden love in the English upper classes; a conspiracy thriller set about the nuclear industry in the seventies; a geriatric present day comedy; a cyberpunk thriller set in 22nd century Neo-Seoul; a grim post apocalyptic horror story taking place sometime in the far flung future.
Directing duties are split between the Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer) and German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International), with Tykwer also contributing to the film’s truly excellent score. The mammoth production was divided into two units that shot simultaneously sharing the cast. Unsurprisingly the Wachowski siblings took care of the two futuristic segments, running wild with impressive CGI in the Neo-Seoul segment. They also handle the 1849 set nautical adventure. Tykwer brings his thriller credentials to the fore in the 70s segment, but also directs the lyrical 30s section and the comic present day story.
For the first 20 minutes or so this is as confusing as it sounds, especially as the film opens with a grizzled old man talking gibberish in the dark. Cloud Atlas leaps from one story to the next to bewildering effect. However things quickly settle into a rhythm, with each story complimenting the others and despite their vastly different styles and tones threads of meaning run through all. The protagonist of the first story writes a diary, the diary is read by a character in the second who composes music heard by someone in the third creating ripples that cascade through time, subtly affecting characters hundreds of years later. An apparently throwaway remark in one story will foreshadow a major plot twist in a later story. What begins as an atonal cacophony becomes a melody, a comic chase in one story is intercut with a brutal battle in another. It should not work, but different notes join in tempo like an expertly conducted symphony.
In most multi-stranded narratives there are some stories more interesting or appealing than others. In Cloud Atlas they are equally compelling but also highly individual, the intercutting between the stories is so well judged that you do not instantly want to jump back to one story as it leaps out of a climactic moment in one and into another. As one would expect, the sci-fi sections directed by the Wachowskis and are visually ravishing and full of excitement. But in fact the most unlikely story, Tykwer’s Ealing-esque contemporary comedy, is one of the most entertaining. In this tale Jim Broadbent plays a roguish literary agent on the run from associates of a gangster-turned-author who he has fleeced whilst the writer is incarcerated, before ending up in an old peoples’ home in Scotland that resembles the mental institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When the film cuts from this story, which feels like it could have been directed by Bill Forsyth, to an Apocalypto influenced thriller in which a tattooed Tom Hanks tries to escape horse riding cannibals led by Hugh Grant, and the gears do not grind at all… well I wanted to stand on my seat and applaud.
The film’s big innovation from the novel will also present the biggest stumbling block to some audiences. The use of the same actors in multiple roles adds extra cohesion to the sprawling narratives, but the success of the make-ups used to change characters ethnicities and genders is variable. Many are incredible, rendering actors unrecognisable (there is a handy round up during the end credits) but occasionally they don’t work at all. There is a particularly bad moment where a Korean actor is asked to play a Mexican immigrant in make-up which looks frankly terrible. Mercifully it is a very small part. Certainly in the films early stages this is distracting, but once immersed in the picture I didn’t mind it. Because the film moves so fast, a poor makeup becomes a temporary distraction, rather than a constant irritation (see Hitchcock for an example of the latter).
Also the acting styles vary greatly, this is nowhere more apparent than with Tom Hanks who plays serious in several stories and delivers broad comedy in others. I found his oirish/scouse gangster and seedy Scottish hotelier characters hilarious. Some won’t see the joke. I also found the decision in the Neo-Seoul story to give all the characters Asian characteristics provocative, a suggestion of a drawing together of races in an evolutionary progression. However this idea is curiously dropped for the post apocalypse story which is set over a century later so it may be completely accidental (and it makes no sense in scientific terms).
The pooled cast all attribute themselves well. Jim Sturgess seems to have become the new Kyle McLachlan and gets to play a character that is essentially a neo-Neo. Halle Berry hasn’t been as good since Monster’s Ball. James D’Arcy manages to act his way out from behind some rather stiff ageing makeup. Hugo Weaving is terrifying in drag. Jim Broadbent is lovable in one story and despicable in another. Hugh Grant is cast against type six times. Korean Doona Bae (The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) is very impressive as a cloned waitress. However perhaps the finest performance in the film is from Ben Wishaw playing a gay composer in the 1930s, a story that heavily references Evelyn Waugh, E.M. Forster and Merchant Ivory.
And you can never have enough Keith David in my opinion.
There are big themes in here, slavery, destiny, love, belief, humanity and inhumanity. Despite this the film is fleet of foot, never feeling pompous or self important, and consistently entertaining over its near three hour running time. Not everything works, but it is rare in these days were the bean counters rule to see a film that aims so high made by filmmakers so heroically unafraid of looking foolish.
This review originally appeared on www.screenjabber.com