Film

Lots of big fluffy clouds

Henry Barnes

At nearly three hours long, Cloud Atlas has all the marks of a giant folly, and those unfamiliar with the book will be baffled.

The future of knitwear: Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas.

An artichoke that fires lasers. Montages that span the ages. Jim Broadbent saying “ruddy”, women on conveyer belts in the nuddy. Evil oil partisans, bed-hopping artisans, parasitic brain worms, Halle Berry with a perm. Sex, death, love, space; cannibals, parables, war, race ...

Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (the Matrix trilogy) are banking on there being something in that lot that catches your eye. The co-directors of Cloud Atlas, the adaptation of David Mitchell’s Booker-shortlisted novel, reportedly coaxed $100-million out of independent financiers to convert the book to the screen, and they have taken a big risk with this roaming behemoth of a movie.

They tackle the complexity of the novel by introducing two innovations — one surprisingly deft and one absolutely daft. Mitchell’s book is a compilation of six separate-but-linked short stories, which run consecutively and range from the troubled Pacific voyage of a 19th-century abolitionist to the day-to-day struggles of a small tribe living on post-apocalyptic Hawaii. In between, we call in on a genius 1930s composer, an investigative journalist digging into a conspiracy in the oil industry in 1970s California, a pompous book publisher trapped in a modern-day nursing home, and a dystopian future where workers are farmed to supply the labour needs of a fast food chain.

The three directors have carefully rearranged the chronology, splicing between the stories based on theme. It’s a daring shuffle, but it works. By zipping back and forth across the timeline they’re emphasising Mitchell’s original message — that the human experience is essentially universal across the ages.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis’ other twist on this karmic hokum is to cast each of their actors in multiple roles across the stories, regardless of age or race. This is less successful.

Berry pops up as a white Jewish aristocrat in the 1930s before zooming forward to a distant future that requires dreadlocks and what appears to be a polo mint stuck to her head. James Darcy gets a Korean makeover for the streets of “Neo Seoul”, but also shuffles around the 1970s as a geriatric scientist. South Korean actress Bae Doona gets Caucasian make-up and Regency dress for her trip to the 1800s, before reclaiming her role as leader of a militant fast-food union in 2114.

 

There isn’t a make-up artist in the world who can make the switch from Tom Hanks as a boozy 21st-century Irish author to Tom Hanks as a wire-whiskered 19th-century ship’s doctor look like anything other than Tom Hanks trying on a new nose. Again, this is an attempt to relate the message that all human beings are essentially the same, which would work if the transformations didn’t look utterly alien.

At nearly three hours long, Cloud Atlas has all the marks of a giant folly, and those unfamiliar with the book will be baffled. Yet it’s hard to wholly condemn the directors’ ambition: this is fast-paced and cleverly assembled, with the best of the performances shining through the prosthetics (Hugh Grant makes great play of the clutch of villains he’s dealt). The Tykwer-Wachowski collective offers everything here; chances are there’s something in the hodgepodge for you. — © Guardian News & Media 2012

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