Cloud Atlas, co-directed by the Wachowski siblings (Bound, The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume), is an adaptation of David Mitchell’s prizewinning 2004 novel of the same name. The thesis of the film (and the book) is a paraphrase of Russell Crowe’s corny Gladiator grandstand – ‘what we do in life, echoes in eternity’. Six separate (but thematically and literally linked) stories are told from different eras, three in the past, one in the present and two in the future. Boldly, the same troupe of actors - including Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess - recur throughout, playing different characters in different times, crossing boundaries of sex, race, nation, time and plane of existence.
It’s quite possibly the oddest and most challenging big-budget SF adaptation since David Lynch’s Dune – and without that film’s po-faced ponderousness or hatchet-job editing. It has its flaws (which I'll come on to) and I suppose is a bit of creaky premise from the start - but I loved it. I haven't seen a film with such ambition, drive and passion behind it for years. Novels are often (usually wrongly) described as 'unfilmable'; Mitchell's book comes closer than most to this troublesome definition and yet the film-makers have created something new and quite startling from the source material - in an entirely cinematic experience. It is pioneering storytelling, and in an age where ancient matinee gimmicks like 3D and shaky seats are posited as the future of film, it is reassuring to see directors testing the limits of the medium through true craft and artistry.
The Wachowskis/Tikwer are also saying something more profound about cinema itself: the relationship between actor, character and viewer. It’s not so deliberate that it becomes an exercise in trying audience patience though - enough is left for the us to decide for ourselves whether there is in fact an eternal essence of Hugh Grant spanning the aeons, manifesting variously as a bent Victorian vicar and a skull-bedecked post-apocalyptic headhunter. In fact, all of the performances push boundaries here. Halle Berry is as good here as she’s ever been; Tom Hanks (who finds it hard to turn down his ‘genial’ dimmer-switch) is less successful, but game for the try, hilariously mangling his vowels as an Irish hardman before defenestrating a literary critic with glorious menace.
Curiously, much of the film is surprisingly – intentionally – funny. There are some high camp moments, and high farce too – especially in Jim Broadbent’s present-day story strand, in an escape from a Scottish home for the elderly in the grip of Hugo Weaving’s tyrannical matron (and which circuitously inspires revolutions, centuries later). The 'hard' SF sequence in Neo-Seoul is a breathtaking echo of Bladerunner; the Cloud Atlas sequence, in 1920s Edinburgh is a contrasting sepia gorgeousness.
Yes, the directors are packing a lot in, and taking a lot of risks. But it’s just quite wonderful to see a filmmakers slewing off the baggage of decades of orthodoxy and asking afresh – ‘how shall we tell this story with moving image and sound?’
And speaking of sound, you won't hear a better-soundtracked film all year. The score, by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tikwer himself, is a perfect counterpoint to the photography of Frank Greibe and John Toll. Without music this lovely (and so simpatico with the story - perhaps every movie should be scored by its director?), it would be half the film it is. Huge credit should also be given to Alexander Berner's editing, unfathomably overlooked in the Academy Awards.
To be frank, I don’t have the measure of this film – I was spellbound by it, though my suspicions of greater depths, of a meta-narrative on the craft/art of cinema may be pushing it: I don’t know. What isn’t in doubt is that Cloud Atlas is a film of extraordinary ambition and vision. I can’t remember the last film of this kind of budget, with this kind of star power, that attempted something so different and unusual. Perhaps it doesn’t quite work; it’s a simultaneously a noble failure of storytelling and a triumph of cinematic craft. Either way, it demands to be seen.