The great surprise about Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings' insane attempt at filming David Mitchell's reputedly unfilmable novel is not that they persevered against all odds at mounting it independently from the big studios, or that they managed to get it done at all. No, the surprise is just how good it is coming from a trio of filmmakers that had been pretty much counted out - Mr. Tykwer has had a few hits and misses but never recaptured the freshness of his breakthrough Run Lola Run, while the Wachowskis have never been able to repeat the knock-out punch of the magisterial The Matrix.

     Cloud Atlas is good rather than great - there is much that is misjudged or misbegotten throughout its three-hour running time, but it's remarkable how, despite all that, it all hangs together cohesively and coherently. It isn't merely a feat of editing (though Alexander Berner's smoothly dexterous cutting between six storylines in different time frames is an achievement in itself) but above all a feat of remarkable stylistic unity between three directors handling separately six plots that span centuries, and genres. Cloud Atlas flows from the 19th century Pacific to a distant post-apocalyptic future over a series of interconnected stories invoking the pursuit of love, liberty and happiness against a series of social and political struggles and obstacles (confirming just how much of British literature and art is about matters of class).

     In the 19th-century, lawyer Jim Sturgess stands up against racism during a long voyage home back to San Francisco; his diary is being read in the 1930s by ambitious, penniless British composer Ben Whishaw, attempting to make his name against all odds. His love letters end up in the hands of 1970s journalist Halle Berry, researching a political conspiracy in San Francisco; her adventures are fictionalized in a murder mystery whose manuscript is being read by London publisher Jim Broadbent, caught up between the rock of thuggish threats and the hard place of a vengeful brother, and his own story, turned into a film, serves as inspiration to 22nd-century clone servant Doona Bae, leading an unlikely uprising against a dystopian future government. Her sacrifice is raised to a god-like cult by a quasi-pre-historic post-apocalyptic civilisation seeking salvation. In the book, the six stories were nested within each other, but for the movie Mr. Tykwer and Ms. and Mr. Wachowski replace that structure with a constant shift between tales and eras that highlights the themes of hope and freedom, even if they do push the button a bit too hard by casting the same actors in all stories (occasionally in quasi-unrecognisable bit parts or walk-in cameos) - something that on principle isn't a bad idea but, in practice, devolves occasionally into pointless gimmickry.

     Yet there is a real unity of tone between the six stories, split between the three directors - Mr. Tykwer, who directs the three 20th century segments, handles with aplomb both the best (the 1930s Romantic melodrama) and the least-interesting (the contemporary farce of the publisher adrift), while Ms. and Mr. Wachowski overegg the futuristic-dystopian sci-fi piece (far too derivative from both Soylent Green and Speed Racer) but redeem themselves with both the seafaring drama and the post-apocalyptic segment. And despite the obvious individual fragilities in each of the episodes, Cloud Atlas really shines as something greater than a mere sum of its parts, the echoes and resonances between all six plots underlined with a welcome sobriety by directors usually known for putting form over function, and able to pull surprising about-faces from actors we haven't really seen in roles like this (notably Hugh Grant, surprising in a couple of villainous roles, and Tom Hanks, enjoying immensely the make-believe transformations that he undergoes, even if not all of them are entirely convincing).

     A remarkable shot at redemption whose lofty ambitions are smartly underlined by a sincerity that may be gauche but is never overbearing or affected, Cloud Atlas may be a grand, misunderstood experiment - but that is exactly what makes it moving and often successful.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James d'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

Directors: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Screenplay: Ms. Wachowski, Mr. Tykwer, Mr. Wachowski, from the novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Cinematography (colour, processing by Arri Film & TV, widescreen): John Toll, Frank Griebe
Music: Mr. Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil
Designers: Uli Hanisch, Hugh Bateup
Costumes: Kym Barrett, Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editor: Alexander Berner
Visual effects: Dan Glass, Stéphane Ceretti
Producers: Grant Hill, Stefan Arndt, Ms. Wachowski, Mr. Tykwer, Mr. Wachowski (Cloud Atlas Production, X-Filme Creative Pool and Anarchos Pictures in association with A Company, ARD Degeto, Dreams of Dragons Pictures, Media Asia Film Production Group and Ascension Pictures)
Germany/USA/Hong Kong/Singapore, 2012, 172 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), November 22nd 2012


Popular Posts