DIR/WRI: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski • PRO: Stefan Arndt, Grant Hill, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski • DOP: Frank Griebe, John Toll • ED: Alexander Berner • DES: Hugh Bateup, Uli Hanisch • CAST: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving
Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis make a bold attempt to film David Mitchell’s ‘unfilmable’ Cloud Atlas, straddling, as it does, several periods and locations, past, present and future. They have created an epic that excites and entertains but ultimately remains shallow.
Mitchell left much for his readers to interpret, and to make sense of the connections between the various tales. The film lacks that subtlety, and its zipping from one time and place to another may put off viewers before the links are made all too obvious.
In 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a lawyer, meets Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) and secures a contract on a Pacific island. He contracts an illness, and Dr. Goose tends to him on the voyage home. Kupaka escapes from the plantation and beseeches Mr. Ewing to ask Captain Molyneux (Jim Broadbent) to allow him work on the ship.
In 1936, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) leaves his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), to go to Edinburgh and work with famed composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). He yearns to create his own works.
In 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) meets the older Rufus Sixsmith, whose suspicious death in San Francisco causes her to investigate the nuclear power company he was working for. She finds assistance from Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks).
In 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a publisher, finds himself needing financial assistance from his brother Denholme (Hugh Grant), who arranges for his confinement in an English retirement home. He seeks escape.
In 2144, an archivist interviews Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a genetically engineered fabricant, before her execution. She recounts her experiences before her arrest.
Finally, in Hawaii, 106 years after a catastrophic event called the Fall, Zachry (Tom Hanks) struggles with the devil Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving) as he helps Meronym (Halle Berry), a member of the Prescient society seeking an abandoned communications station. Meanwhile, the Kona tribe threatens Zachry’s village.
Old Zachry’s reminiscence forms the fulcrum of Mitchell’s novel, and it also frames the film. Whereas the novel moved chronologically forwards, then backwards, the adaptation demonstrates film’s ability to cut between the centuries and jump from place to place. The filmmakers provide several tense climatic sequences that successfully shift in such a manner.
A clear theme emerges: the struggle for freedom, whether by a plantation worker in the 19th-century Pacific islands, an elderly man from a 21-century retirement home or a 22nd-century genetically-engineered worker. The drama that surrounds these stories provide the excitement and intrigue that makes Cloud Atlas work well when it’s good. The sentimental claptrap about love and everything being connected is less effective. Why must talented filmmakers use an ambitious film to make such banal statements?
Jim Broadbent excels both as Timothy Cavendish, providing the film with its comic moments, and as the composer Ayrs . Ben Whishaw also impresses, portraying Robert Frobisher as a more sympathetic character than in the novel.
Like Paul Muni back in the 1930s, Tom Hanks relies too much on make-up to convince an audience of his acting skills. He has the most work, playing Zachry, Dr. Goose, Isaac Sachs and an actor playing Cavendish in a film that Sonmi sees. His eccentric turn as Dermot Hoggins, an Irish novelist hoping for success with Cavendish, entertains, even it’s over the top.
Halle Berry plays well as Luisa Rey but makes little impression as Meronym. Hugo Weaving fares poorly, playing parts that are too similar to that of Agent Smith in The Matrix or that come off as old-style pantomime (Old Georgie, the devil testing Zachry) or poor drag (Nurse Noakes, ratcheting up difficulties for Cavendish).
The film displays the visual flair expected from both Tykwer and the Wachowskis at their best. Where it falters is its uneven tone. The humour of the Cavendish story seems out of kilter with the other solemn stories concerning corporate conspiracy, suicide and doomed love affairs. Zachry’s story features the heavily accented speech that, in its written form, made that segment of the novel alienating for some. With Old Georgie looking for Zachry’s shoulder, it proves the least accomplished of the various strands. The closing sequences feel overstretched in an effort to tie it all together.
Often beautiful and frequently thrilling, Cloud Atlas reaches for heavenly heights but misses.
15A (see IFCO website for details)
Cloud Atlas is released on 22nd February 2013