Cloud Atlas REVIEW


Release Date: 22 February 2013
15 | 171 minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros
Director: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Cast: Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

The odds are usually stacked against directors who dare to pluck a tome down from the shelf marked “unfilmable”. But that hasn’t deterred Andy and Lana Wachowski, who, along with Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer, have attempted to adapt a modern example of the category, David Mitchell’s 2004 Booker Prize nominee Cloud Atlas.

Not only are they tackling an incredibly complicated book, but the three filmmakers have managed to combine their efforts in a way that never feels like different styles are vying for the audience’s attention like kids in a school play. Despite the fact that Andy and Lana Wachowski are better known for the visually striking Matrix trilogy and the overly-CG flair of Speed Racer, and Tykwer is normally found making the likes of Run Lola Run (itself admittedly pretty gimmicky) and Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, there is never a clash. And though their reach has sometimes exceeded their grasp, what they’ve pulled off is an impressive, visually artful and thoughtful piece of cinema.

Instead of simply distilling Mitchell’s epic, time-and-lives-skipping narrative, they’ve tried to find a way to incorporate a decent amount of it into their version. So we visit the South Pacific of 1849, the Britain of 1936, the San Francisco of 1973, the United Kingdom of 2012, the Neo Seoul (South Korea) of 2144, and the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian Islands of 2321.

We’re spun stories of heroic slaves, resistance fighters, a foolish publisher, an investigative journalist and more. The result does initially feel like flipping TV channels on a bank holiday, but the film soon settles down to expand on its themes. And although the tone can vary wildly, from farce to world-shifting drama, the different tales never feel like they rub up uncomfortably against each other.

Mostly, they are focused on the idea of reincarnation and links between people through the ages, but other concerns include redemption, speaking truth to power and listening to the better angels of our natures. Without the supporting text of the book, some of the rumination feels a little like a preachy pamphlet wrapped around a mallet (particularly the sections set in future Seoul, which include lots of chatter about why humanity nearly destroyed itself ), but the writer/directors do get most of the deep thoughts across with a fair degree of subtlety.

The effects are, predictably, impressive, even if it does feel, in certain moments, as though the Wachoswkis in particular are more entranced with the fabulous visions they can create than the human characters they must serve. But a few minutes of CG-laden cityscapes and high-tech chases aside, there’s thankfully little real over-indulgence. Some of the plotlines could benefit from a little judicious editing, but on the whole the lengthy running time feels about right to get the most from the varied plotlines.

Anchored by the reliable likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw, the cast is uniformly entertaining, even when acting through some occasionally dodgy make-up (the actors play a variety of different roles, under make-ups that range from fairly decent to abysmal – the sight of Jim Sturgess in “yellow face” is pretty dreadful). There has been some controversy about putting the likes of Berry and co in the Neo Seoul scenes, but the effect is more of souls travelling through the universe than simply letting actors stretch themselves. And everyone gets to play a variety of characters – some good, some evil, some simply people (with the possible exception of poor old Hugo Weaving, who is largely handed villains, be they slave owners, hitmen or weird sort-of- Asian future bureaucrats).

Halle Berry, for the most part, gets to be a hero, be it as a crusading journalist or a heroic woman of the future who is looking to help other human survivors following a cataclysm. There’s one weird diversion, where she plays a cackling Korean doctor, which seems out of sorts (and, since the character is on screen for less than a minute, you do rather wonder why the actress agreed to suffer through the prosthetics process), but that’s a blip.

Jim Broadbent’s highlight comes as he channels his bumbling comic persona for the publisher’s tale, which also features memorable work from Hanks, as well as Hugh Grant as his brother who, sick of funding his disreputable lifestyle, has him shipped off to an old folks’ home that’s more Colditz than caring.

The sheer number of plotlines can make the whole endeavour feel a little overstuffed at times, but it’s certainly a worthy attempt. The film’s various tales are by turns dramatic and funny, thrilling or calm, but the majority engage and some even enthrall (the story of Ben Whishaw’s young composer, for example, or Tom Hanks’s future encounter with Halle Berry).

Cloud Atlas has already met with mixed reactions (and slightly underwhelming box office returns) in the States, but it’s certainly worth your time and effort to seek it out. It’s not often we’re given something that looks so dazzling, features such an impressive, eclectic cast, and which will leave your noggin buzzing with ideas, yet only occasionally diverges into lecture. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, and the final film provides further proof that even the toughest, most detail-rich and purportedly brainy tomes can be adapted to the big screen with success. Here’s to future risk-takers.

James White

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