On Cloud Nine
Is there any point in labeling books as ‘unfilmable’ anymore? HBO has enjoyed a huge amount of success since 2011 for adapting George R. R. Martin’s ‘unfilmable’ fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire from book to screen; Ang Lee won his second Oscar in January, this time for directing the beautiful and financially lucrative film version of Life of Pi, adapted from Yann Martel’s ‘unfilmable’ novel of the same name. Now, after finding itself also relegated to the Bin of Unfilmable Novels, David Mitchell’s multi-story epic Cloud Atlas has been offered a reprieve by none other than the duo who gave the world The Matrix, and acclaimed German director Tom Tyker.
To try and unpick the tightly interwoven narratives and reduce them to one simple synopsis for the purpose of this review would be crass, not to mention nigh on impossible. Suffice to say Cloud Atlas is a bubbling cocktail of six stories; ranging from a slave ship crossing the Pacific in 1849 to an unknown destination far off in the future (shown to be a hybrid jungle that is simultaneously half-Lost, half-Star Trek) with a handful of pitstops in between.
There is a twist, of course, which is that all of these stories are somehow linked to one another – sometimes importantly, sometimes through a tenuous wink and playful nudge at the audience. These links are shown through a variety of ways; tonally through the film’s editing; conceptually through its heavy emphasis on notions of love and karma and, most noticeably, aesthetically, through its use of a small set of actors playing a wide range of different roles. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, for example, each play six separate characters in Cloud Atlas’ duration, as does Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant, but even the smallest workload is still three different parts.This gives the film a marvelous jigsaw quality; something you want to get your teeth into, untangle, and enjoy on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Due to their numerous roles, judging the cast’s performances becomes a feat in itself. The nature of playing so many different characters with different races, backgrounds, stories and personalities means that in one instance an actor may be terrific but, equally, in the next they may be decidedly below par (Tom Hanks is probably the best example of someone fluctuating the most between these two states.) However, Jim Broadbent is brilliant in his main role of Timothy Cavendish, providing a much needed level of comic relief to proceedings with his Wallace like bumblings and incredulity, and Doona Bae manages to steal the show completely with her graceful performance as Somni-451, a clone turned revolutionist in Neo Seoul. Cloud Atlas belongs to her.
Hugh Grant proves to be the only bizarre choice in casting. Even as an Apocalypto styled villain in the distant future he still can’t lose his patented smarm seen in the likes of Bridget Jones and Love Actually.
Armed with a large budget and with mainstream audiences in its crosshairs, Cloud Atlas is undeniably a risky gamble of a film and, while its ambition should definitely be admired, one cannot help but notice moments when it does occasionally overreach. This is seen most predominantly through its use of makeup and prosthetics. For the most part they work well, however, when they don’t it does tend to make things look like a cinematic minstrel show. I can understand why it was a necessity, of course, but it does mean most of the Korean sequences (where mostly caucasian actors are playing Asian roles) are blighted with cosmetic distractions.
This added with the sheer concentration that is required, intensively, for nearly three hours will send certain parts of the population running for the hills. I know the thought of six interlocking stories and no real downtime in 171 minutes is a big ask but to any naysayers, I ask this: what other movie have you ever seen that combined the story of a geriatric crew breaking out of an oppressive nursing home in the modern day so seamlessly with a full on futuristic revolutionary war over Neo-Seoul in 2144? Exactly.
In the twenty something years I have been watching movies I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like Cloud Atlas. Sadly, due to a mixed critical response and underwhelming box office receipts, I doubt I will ever see anything quite like it again. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have fashioned an extraordinary work of art; rich and heavy, a great big Christmas dinner of a film, to be feasted upon with our eyes and minds and souls. Despite some dropped stitches, I loved it.
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