Review: Cloud Atlas

Movies & TV - March 8th, 2013

The strength of the Cloud Atlas lies in smart cuts between scenes that create a patchwork puzzle of links, both apparent and obscure, whose meaning is questioned as you are drawn into the thickening plot, writes Christopher O’Keeffe. Here is the culmination of an ambitious project adapting David Mitchell’s complex 2004 novel for the big screen.

When reading a novel with multiple threads it often becomes frustrating to be pulled away from one set of characters you’ve become involved with to take up with an alternate narrative. The first achievement this adaptation makes is that when the setting changes from, say, a pulsating future Neo-Seoul to present day rural Scotland, it is not an annoyance.

Cloud Atlas is composed from several different stories ranging across time, the earliest being the Pacific of the 19th century and the latest a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, with actors playing different characters in each of the separate narratives – perhaps the director’s boldest decision was to have the same actors play different roles in each of the films segments.

Story-lines are cut together at a frantic pace – for which the editors really deserve some credit – and what’s interesting is that all the episodes with their different plots, characters and agendas hold together and are equally absorbing. With story switches I found I could quickly adjust, mainly due to the fast tempo: it’s never static and so you quickly become accustomed to each environment.

The link between characters across narratives isn’t immediately apparent and even at the end isn’t exactly clear, but the setting changes so frequently there isn’t time to consider the nature of the whole piece, which is something you will contemplate long after leaving the cinema.

Some of the makeup effects, while ambitious, with actors crossing genders and race, are pretty awful. Hugo Weaving’s Nurse Noakes stands out as the main offender, although Doona Bae playing a prim Victorian lady was a gamble that didn’t pay off – she fails to hide her Korean accent, though I’m not entirely sure she’s trying to.

To be fair there were some famous faces I didn’t recognise until the credits revealed each actor in their various guises, including Hugh Grant in a surprising role that’s well against type. The ‘Jar-Jar Binks’ speak of the future Hawaii is another mistake, it’s pretty grating until you get accustomed to it. Despite these drawbacks, the film rattles along at a lightening speed and I hardly noticed its nearly three-hour running time.

The actors give good account of themselves, Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy’s relationship is the most recognisable and moving, Korean actress Doona Bae is mesmerising as Sonmi-451, a clone of Neo-Seoul who will attain God-like status in the future, and the biggest stars, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, are good in their various different guises.

The film is a collaboration between Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, who together wrote, directed and produced the movie. Tykwer, the German born director who made his name internationally with the indie hit Run Lola Run has experience adapting novels stemming from his version of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

The Wachowski’s are most famous for their Matrix trilogy, which began in 1999 with a fresh and exciting film that came out of nowhere, packed with original ideas and groundbreaking visual work but whose sequels became bloated and self-indulgent and more than a little ridiculous.

Working with another director, a limited budget and from a source material seems to have reigned in the directors enabling them to keep control of something which could have quickly become a terrible mess.

This is a film which will certainly divide people into those who think it is convoluted and nonsensical and those who can see something more in the story and are prepared to be taken along for the ride.

Cloud Atlas, on general release in Japan from March 15, is visually impressive and there is enough going on to make it engaging and compelling, and with its multiple episodes and big performances it’s certainly worthy of your time.