The Pitch: All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…
The Review: Calling all authors! Cinema is taking on any challenge you can throw at it, and over the past few years one book after another previously claimed to be beyond even the most artistic and ambitious directors, from the Lord Of The Rings to Life Of Pi. Since they’ve not only been adapted, but often to universal critical acclaim, the search must be on for a novel which is genuinely unfilmable. If you’d like a challenge, surely you’d take on a book that’s actually six different stories, nested one inside the other, each told with a different writing style and working in a different genre, with masses of linking themes and recurring motifs. If you really want to make sure you’re testing yourself, you’d divide the load between two contrasting sets of film makers, one known for period and contemporary works and one pair who have a reputation for unbalanced and challenged futuristic works, but you wouldn’t necessarily divide the work between them along those lines. Then for good measure you’d mix all six narrative threads together, and cast thirteen different actors to play sixty-four different parts across the six narratives… Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Cloud Atlas.
So the six narratives from David Mitchell’s original novel remain largely intact, but gone is the novel’s step by step approach of taking half of each story, then moving forward; instead the six time periods each get a set-up, then run simultaneously, frequently cutting back and forth at significant points of intersection. There’s a nominal lead in each period: Jim Sturgess is Adam Ewing in 1849, an America lawyer conducting business in the Chatham Islands who gets caught up with a slave and falls under the care of a doctor (Tom Hanks); Ben Whishaw is Robert Frobisher in 1936, a frustrated composer (who’s also bisexual) and who takes a job as an amanuensis (and no, I’d never heard of that either) to Jim Broadbent’s Vyvyan Arys to allow time to finish his own work; Halle Berry is Luisa Ray, a journalist in 1973 who investigates a nuclear reactor run by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant); Jim Broadbent is Timothy Cavendish, a publisher in 2012 who gets into trouble after one of his clients (Tom Hanks) commits a notorious act and turns to his brother (Hugh Grant) for help; Doona Bae is Somni-451, a clone worker at a restaurant in 2144 who goes on the run with a rebel freedom fighter (Jim Sturgess); and Tom Hanks is Zachry, a tribesman living in The Valley at an indeterminate point in the far future who attempts to help a futuristic visitor to his valley (Halle Berry) after his family and friends are attacked by another tribe (led by Hugh Grant).
With me so far? One of the bigger achievements of Cloud Atlas is the clarity and sense of narrative purpose. It’s always clear who’s doing what, what’s going on when, which time period we’re in and despite the frequent cutting, audiences should have little difficulty keeping track of the various plot strands. To call it a roller coaster ride would be to undersell roller coasters somewhat, as the six different stories have wildly differing tones from the outset: you get period drama, conspiracy thriller, broad farce and sci-fi action, often repeatedly in random orders, but somehow the six stories – the first and last two directed by the Wachowskis, the middle three by Tom Tykwer – work together and actually serve to complement each other. There’s connective tissue at work, some subtle and some more obvious, and plenty of themes at work, but it might take more than one viewing to attempt to unpack them all. What you can’t say about Cloud Atlas is that it’s ever dull, and while some might feel at two hours and fifty minutes it’s too long (a view I don’t subscribe to), it’s hard to see where too many cuts could have been made without excising an entire narrative.
But let’s not beat about the bush: it’s bonkers. Completely, utterly nutty as a fruitcake, and the decision to cast so many actors in so many roles is often more than a little distracting as it becomes one giant game of Guess Who? Five of the main actors (Hanks, Berry, Sturgess, Grant and Hugo Weaving, more often than not a villain of sorts in each thread) appear in every segment, two of them cross-dress and all of them cross-race at some point – and Hanks’ Oirish accent has to be heard to be disbelieved, and most of the final strand is spoken in a sort of pidgin English that sounded eerily reminiscent of the jive talking sections in Airplane! – and it’s occasionally easy to get lost attempting to work out who a certain person in a scene is, rather than focussing on the plot. Directorially, the work’s been divided reasonably between the collaborators; the Jim Sturgess on a boat scenes struggle the most to stay alive, possibly as the Wachowskis don’t have as much in the way of gimmicks, while their Korean strand is the most provocative, but the two past Tykwer segments are the most satisfying dramatically. If you don’t like one story, don’t worry, there’ll be another one along in a moment, and while I’d struggle to call Cloud Atlas a great film, it’s almost always a compelling one. Surely, though, it can only be a matter of time before someone attempts the great unfilmable book, the telephone directory? You wouldn’t put it past the Wachowskis on this evidence.
Why see it at the cinema: Revel in the madness. There’s a few intentional laughs which will benefit, and a few possibly unintentional which work just as well and a couple of the narrative strands, most notably the two futuristic ones, have a decent sense of scale and spectacle that work well.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language, once very strong, strong violence and sex. Given that the details on the BBFC’s extended classification range from blood spurts to a graphic description of a sex scene, there would probably have had to have been a good 2 – 3 minutes of cuts to secure a 12A, and there can be no complaints at the 15 level.
My cinema experience: Pre-booked my ticket online to collect from the machine and headed straight in for a reasonably packed Saturday afternoon showing, but in the interests of full disclosure I made a massive cock-up which caused me to miss between five and ten minutes of the film about an hour in. When parking at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds, I pay for the car parking by text message using my number plate, a wonderful modern convenience, and one which I never gave a thought to until an hour into the film, when I remembered I had driven my wife’s car that day (she’d taken mine to work) and so I’d paid to park the wrong car.
With no small change on me for the parking machine and a complex registration process to undergo to do the text parking thing for my wife’s car, I took the only reasonable option: I ran to the expensive cashpoint in the cinema foyer, got a ten pound note, paid for the cheapest thing I could see at the concessions (turned out to be an apple Capri-Sun, causing some bizarre flashbacks to childhood), ran to the car park with a Capri-Sun in my pocket, paid for the car parking just before the attendant got to my floor and would have spotted my faux pas and then ran back to the cinema to enjoy a very sweaty child’s drink and get my breath back. A surreal experience that felt somewhat in keeping with the film, and provided a useful intermission to break up the near three-hour running time.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Of course, what you want with a film with a running time north of 170 minutes is the briefest amount of trailers and adverts, which Cineworld failed to deliver. Twenty-eight minutes of ads of varying kinds before the film, one of the longest of my year so far, meaning anyone seeing that from the start would be sat for three hours and ten minutes; not good.
The Score: 8/10