25 February 2013


Frankly, Cloud Atlas shouldn't exist. There's plenty to be glad about, though, and it only adds to the triumphal feel of the piece that it does exist, in a Hollywood system that chews up ambition and originality and regurgitates it for a mass audience. Released in the US in November, it's finally reached the UK during Oscar weekend, and it's a fitting reminder that Hollywood's biggest night doesn't always reward ambition, as much as safety and a sure hand.

Toppling another of the reputedly "unadaptable" novels, Cloud Atlas is based on the epic six-pronged novel by David Mitchell (not that one), set over different time periods and locations. In the 19th century, a young notary falls sick on a voyage home to America. In the 1930s, a bisexual composer tries to make his name. In 1973, a journalist investigates a safety scandal at a nuclear power plant. In 2012, a publisher winds up committing himself to an old folks' home by accident. In the 22nd century, a woman who was bred to serve becomes the figurehead of revolution. And in the distant future, a primitive struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic land. All of these stories are linked, by either coincidence, recurrence or the endurance of the human spirit.

If it sounds like a tough sell, you might be able to see why this one could only be independently funded. And seeing as how directors Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski raised the $102m budget themselves, and presented the film for distribution fait accompli, they weren't content to merely film an unfilmable novel- they also made it quite uniquely cinematic in the process. To illustrate the connections between different stories in different eras, many of the cast play multiple roles. Only Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving appear in all six eras, but the guiding ethos seems to be that anyone can be cast as any character, with no bar on gender or ethnicity.

For that particular kind of conversion, there's a lot to be said for the film's make-up and prosthetic effects. While the lack of an Oscar nomination might be down to a few slightly shonky effects, like those which morph South Korean actress Doona Bae into an English lady, or perpetual scaryman Weaving into an imperious female nurse, the ones that work more than make up for the ones that don't. You'll have some fun trying to figure out which actor is playing which role, but more importantly, in following how one actor's characters will line up in a larger arc over different eras.

This is most evident with Hanks' characters- he plays against type in almost all of his roles here, and rather than being a de facto leading man, he forms a big part of a central tract about good and evil. If 19th century Hanks was a total arsehole, are all subsequent Hankses doomed to the same behaviour? It's more complex than that, but to explain it any better would be to spoil the pleasure that comes from following him through several more excellent performances in his filmography. The thematic links also allow for tonal shifts that would shake any other film apart, but this one holds its integrity.

It's never more apparent than in the stand-out segment of the film, which essentially casts Jim Broadbent in a knockabout British caper comedy in which he has to escape an old folks' home. It's the story that you kind of want to see as a feature-length, standalone version, but its placement in the middle of this sprawling, otherwise straight-faced epic brings some welcome levity, and never undercuts the overall conceit. This integrity is also a testament to Alexander Berner's truly amazing editing, which makes spectacular use of match-on action and bleeding sound to connect seemingly separate bits within the whole. Sod the make-up- the unforgivable snub that this film received at the Oscars was in the category for Best Editing.

Cloud Atlas is a marvellous and completely underrated feat of ambition. Even when its reach exceeds its grasp, the latter is still tight enough to persevere. It's vital, unpretentious and not even a single frame is boring, or uninspired, (even though the cherry on the pie in the very last shot was a tiny cold shower all on its own.) The negative critical responses even unconsciously brought a villainous monologue from the film to mind- there's a natural order, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. Irrespective of how it rubs the mainstream up the wrong way, it's a wondrous, engaging tapestry of a film. Hopefully, in another time, or another place, we'll see something else that has as much conviction behind it as this.

Cloud Atlas is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen
Cloud Atlas, why not share your comments below? If you're Halle Berry, then give us just a few more of these and I just might consider letting you off for Movie 43.
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

No comments: