CLOUD ATLAS (2012)
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant / From the novel by David Mitchell / Original Music Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek & Tom Tykwer / Art Direction High Bateup, Uli Hanisch, Daniel Chour & Sabine Engelberg / Cinematography Frank Griebe & John Toll / Editor Alexander Berner / Producers Stefan Arndt, Alex Boden, David Brown, Jose Luis Escolar, Grant Hill, Andy & Lana Wachowski / Direction Tom Tykwer, Andy & Lana Wachowski
Everything is connected
The Merriam Webster English dictionary describes a ‘Folly’ as, ‘an extravagant picturesque building erected to suit a fanciful taste’. A word on the collective lips of several notable reviewers in regards to the sprawling film adaptation of David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel ‘Cloud Atlas’. On the surface this seems like an apt description of the near 3hr, multiple roomed, eclectic jigsaw of a film. Is Cloud Atlas merely that? Perhaps not, since a folly is an unlivable structure, with no purpose beyond an extravagant whim and a self indulgent prayer. The occupants of this unruly mosaic are very much alive and kicking.. like fully fleshed out occupants trapped in a dream, grasping at some governing structure, and questioning where they came from and where they are headed. In this sense we are firmly in meta-fictional Denis Potter territory, where the lines between omniscient author and powerless character becoming indistinct and blurred.
“He knows I am trying to escape. The Author.. of ‘this’ book. The book I am in. The Book ‘you’ are in.. ‘those’ two men swinging their legs over there are in.”
‘Hide and Seek’ by Dennis Potter (pub. 1973)
The problems with Cloud Atlas are fundamental and quite insoluble, since they go to the very heart of the matter at hand. The novel by David Mitchell is inherently unfilmable, and the nature of its multiple character’s with multiple roles is so fraught with technical problems as to cause a multiple headache for creative and viewer alike. Though the make-up and prosthetics team do an admirable and highly inventive job, the task of convincingly switch genders and ethnicities was never going to be easy. To turn Korean beauty Doona Bae into a convincing befreckled Scot reminds me of that awful ending to ‘In a league of their Own’, where for no good reason Madonna and Geena Davis are caked up with ageing make-up to resemble Barbara Cartland’s older sisters. Usually this type of effect is utilized for short scenes, so if there are any problems with the effect, then they’ll hopefully be out of the way before anyone unduly notices. Cloud Atlas is stuck with them in every other scene of course.. poor devils.
As to structure, author David Mitchell describes his novel as having been constructed as a sort of ‘Pointillist mosaic’, which indeed the film has followed suit with, dividing screen time between seven separate time zones, consisting of a journey aboard a 19th Century slave ship.. a composers quest for perfection set during the 1930’s.. espionage shenanigans with Halle Berry during the 1970’s.. a mini brit-flick comedy for a sort of present day.. a William Gibson inspired future Japan, with the hypnotically beautiful Doona Bae.. and a post-apocalyptic future-future with Tom Hanks’ hotch-potch back-slang (and a seventh time period that I won’t spoil the plot by revealing). Of these, by far the most convincing is the search for the mysterious Cloud Atlas Sextet’ during the 30’s, with the exceptional Ben Wishaw, who turns in the sort of performance worthy of several Oscars & Baftas, but whom no doubt will once again get overlooked come the awards season. The composer tale is certainly the best thought out, even if it doesn’t really have much of a connection with the broader tale itself (what exactly happens to the Sextet, aside from it’s later echo in a futuristic Geisha Bar? ..
..okay, so maybe it’s the general theme music of the film, but..), the mystery appears to be of more importance. This is in fact the general problem. Initially we are presented with a complex, impenetrable epic, which ultimately unravels into a set of answers which are somewhat simplistic and rather derivative. We start to perceive a grand epiphany in these scattered and fractured events, but eventually the mystery outweighs the solution. It may well be that the novel itself has a more effective explanation and set of reveal moments, but for me, the Soylent Green moment (I’m trying my best not to spoil the film) was a decided letdown. The ‘whole’ certainly was not greater than the sum of it’s parts. Perhaps though the old adage is true, that it is not in the final destination, but rather in the journey, that we find the greatest revelations. In the case of Cloud Atlas, we most certainly have some beautiful and poignant moments, but I just wish the ending had been a little more rewarding after nearly three hours.
Though ‘Cloud Atlas’ had a decidedly mixed response, it was regardless an interesting film in critical terms. Reviewers certainly rushed forward to either denounce or to praise the film, and it does indeed seem to be ‘one of those films’, which time will most likely be kinder toward. Quite suitably really, since Cloud Atlas was not shot in Hollywood, but at the heart of the old European Film Industry, at Studio Babelsberg in Germany. The self-same stage that saw the creation of such German Expressionist wonders as ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, ‘Die Nibelungen’ & ‘Metropolis’.. where Dietrich perched on the edge of a barrel to saucily sing ‘Falling in love again’ for ‘The Blue Angel’, and in more recent years, Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds and Stephen Daldry’s ‘The Reader’. In the true spirit of bold, European filmmaking, we have a films which are as surprising as they are ambitious, created far away from the monotony of the Hollywood product. Personally I can put up with a few faults here and there, so long as there’s passion and creativity in spades. The future looks bright for the German film industry, with ‘Hansel & Gretel’ (Reviewed later this month) already impressing with it’s delightfully raucous European humour. Forthcoming attractions from Studio Babelsberg include, Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, George Clooney’s ‘The Monuments Men’ and Brian Percival’s intriguing ‘The Book Thief’. The Cloud Atlas may not be a perfect film, but it is most certainly an interesting and bold one. Let’s just hope Studio Babelsberg keeps up their brave line in productions, because we greatly need them.
“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”