After Samara so captivatingly revealed what the cinema can do without dialogue and narrative-driven filmmaking, Cloud Atlas quite marvellously weaves a half-dozen storylines into an intriguing coat of many generational colours. It’s been a grand year for the art form.
The decidedly non-linear approach finds its roots at the height of the U.S. slave trade (wealthy landowners see nothing wrong with making a fortune off the black backs of “heathen”), then moves into the dirty ‘30s where an aging composer finds new musical life by hiring a literal note-taker to record his vocal utterings for posterity (how akin to the romantic notion of Mozart dictating the Requiem from his death bed, yet this strand is the weak link: the Cloud Atlas Sextet being cast in a symphonic rather than chamber score belies its title; “broken note” as descriptor would have much better had its intended effect been replaced by the more usual “wrong note” in the supposedly wry moment). An intrepid, father-inspired journalist of the ‘70s gets caught up in her search for a dark secret about nuclear power that is curiously connected to Big Oil. The plight of seniors being warehoused by their inheritance-awaiting relatives is nothing new to the big screen, yet the caper to escape the clutches of They Who Must Be Obeyed (with some campy drag to spice up the proceedings) has a wonderful payoff with the seemingly innocuous mumblings of an, apparently, dotty inmate (“I know, I know”). A fantastic view of the future is set in Neo Seoul (Seoul proper being underwater due to climate change unleashed). Here, consumers are the dominant race over lookalike clones becoming their slaves with even worse tedium than their caste forbears. A healthy dose of Orwell’s 1984 is infused into the mix when Sonmi-451 (Ray Bradbury must be beaming somewhere) is asked to speak out with a singular truth: Will that be enough to escape her version of Oceania and Big Brother? Finally, an out-of-this-world yarn replete with monstrous bad guys, demanding ghosts and a strange intruder allows the artistic trust to make all-manner of points from the perspective of other-worldly people and settings.
Adding much to the overall artistic mix (and reinforcing the notion that past deeds—good and bad—are held over for pay forward or pay back in “next lives”), the principal actors are cast in multiple roles.
Leading the fray is Tom Hanks, whose half-dozen characters—notably Zachry’s distant future trials and tribulations—set the bar of excellence. Halle Berry excels as ace reporter for tell-all magazine, Spyglass, but really comes into her own as Meronym—Zachry’s guide to life or perhaps death…
Best of show is Jim Broadbent, firing all of his considerable cylinders as the high seas captain who enjoys his grog; Vyvyan Ayers, an aging composer who—like certain professors and their PhD/Masters charges—shamelessly steals his assistant’s best work and the fun-loving publisher whose fortune is made thanks to one of his struggling writer’s deadly confrontation with a vicious critic, which incredibly turns into his metaphorical and literal last despatch. (Note to self: Never attend film opening after-parties with balconies higher than one storey!)
Doona Bae is superb as both Somni-541 and Sonmi-361 and has just the right air of to-hell-with-you-Papa when, as Tilda, the early slavery story concludes. David Gyasi makes for a compelling slave-on-the-lam, if only the otherwise stellar makeup department had mixed in some of the devastating scars that his whippings must surely have created alongside his alluring tattoos.
The tenderest love story concerns Ayers’ creative, handsome assistant whose extraordinary devotion and honest letter writing to brilliant physicist James D’Arcy is a marvel of courage in the era of the love that dare not speak its name. Their last, heartbreaking embrace is unforgettable—its cause still being played out in all time zones by bullies who so desperately fear the different amongst us.
The trifecta of directors (Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski) have done a commendable job, expertly forging the disparate parts from David Mitchell’s original book with their own collectively written screenplay.
The cinematography (Frank Griebe and John Toll, expertly edited by Alexander Berner) is a miracle of variety, depth and detail.
Once all of the strands have been put to bed (not equally satisfying, with the odd bit of triteness slipping past the keepers of the art), the film’s cantus firmus remains firmly in mind: truth is a singular noun and—sooner or later—what goes around most certainly comes around in unexpected, often unbelievable ways. JWR