(Published in The New Sunday Express, on 28 October, 2012)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Adam Wachowski
Rating: 4.5 stars
Perhaps the mark of a good film based on a book is that you can’t imagine how the text was written without these actors, without this music. When you feel that way about a film based on a Booker-prize nominated novel, you know it’s special.
Cloud Atlas is told through multiple storylines, interconnected by the cast. The deeper among us may interpret this as a journey of souls; the more cynical among us as maximisation of the budget, which is rumoured to be in excess of $100 million. But the film, which spans three hours of our time and several centuries of the universe’s, has a strange impact on the viewer.
When you walk out of the cinema, you aren’t sure what to think. Part of you rolled its eyes at the Eastern-influenced philosophy of a Hollywood movie. Another part of you loved everything about the film. Another part of you was simply zapped. And then there was a part of you that couldn’t stop laughing – with the film, or at the film.
We cross various landscapes here. When it opens, there’s an old man and a fire. We are taken to a barren shore, where somebody meets a fisherman-type. We go to nineteenth century America, where slaves are flogged, as their masters settle down to good dinners they believe slaves enjoy serving. We go to Caius College in Cambridge, and from there to the remote manor of an eccentric composer. We go to a futuristic mega-township, where an interrogation is on. We go to a lush valley, where pantheists fight cannibalistic savages, and host space-age guests. We go to a literary gathering in London where a “flat and inane ending” has severe consequences. We go to the site of an impending nuclear disaster in America.
There are times when you grapple with the import of the film. Is it trying to say souls are transferred? Is it trying to say the world runs on types – the cruel mercenary, the selfish cannibal, the selfless do-gooder, the woman who would sacrifice herself for the greater good, the impulsive murderer?
The humour in the film, most of which hinges on skits that star Jim Broadbent, ranges from timing-centric to wordplay, to slapstick, to wit. There are in-jokes that bear the mark of a novelist’s thoughts – such as an observation that book critics write, “quickly, arrogantly and never wisely.” It’s crazy that this film should also contain breathy pronunciations such as, “May the dead never stay dead”.
With a single tune and a single refrain, “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse”, the film traverses time, sometimes through memory, sometimes through serendipity, and sometimes through intuition. While its spiritual quotient may border on the excessive, it finds a foil in ridiculous comic interjections and action sequences.
The Verdict: It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there’s something compelling about this strange film.