I was predisposed to like CLOUD ATLAS because I directed part of it. Not a large part — not as much as Tom Tykwer or Andy or Lana Wachowski. Just around five seconds of the bottom left hand corner.
Around a year ago, our friend David Brown, who was line producing the Scottish section of the shoot, got in touch with me and asked if the students at Edinburgh College of Art might be persuaded to shoot material for a big split-screen montage showing the media sensation caused when London Irish gangster throws a literary critic off a rooftop for dissing his book. I volunteered my own services and produced a short TV segment debating the merits of murdering critics, and was joined by a number of students, all of us seizing the chance of a decent payday and an exciting CV entry.
It’s possible that the DVD contains the unexpurgated versions of our films, I’ll get back to you on that.
The trailer for the movie was kind of a wow, but did worry me with its VO pontifications. Happily, the movie digests all the philosophizing a lot better than the MATRIX sequels, and struck me as that rare phenomenon, a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. Following in the path of DW Griffith and INTOLERANCE, Buster Keaton and THE THREE AGES and Bill Forsyth and BEING HUMAN (only the middle movie was a real success), the movie tells six stories in different historical periods, and connects them mainly thematically and with a few little motifs — the gimmick of David Mitchell’s source novel, in which the characters from one story read others, or see movies based on them, isn’t as central here, which means the script has to work to establish why exactly it IS telling so many apparently unrelated yarns. I liked the effect.
We’d heard that the script was around 180 pages and rumours hinted that the rough cut of the first half of the movie came in at three hours, but the finished product, though long, never felt it. Multi-narrative things can drag easily, as it takes longer for each narrative strand to get started, interrupted as it is by others. The team here are buoyed along by the sheer puzzlement of what all these stories have to do with each other. It’s a very different plan from the book’s nested narratives, but a pleasingly perverse one.
It’s also fun trying to figure out the literary and/or cinematic influences behind each story, and which sources inspired Mitchell versus which influenced the filmmakers, something I’m not smart enough to do. But here are some guesses —
South Pacific 1849
No idea where this derives from, but it’s another take on the slave trade, which suddenly seems the topic du jour. It’s quite moving, and improves on DJANGO UNCHAINED with its pseudo-science phrenology monologue from Leo DiCaprio, by giving its slave-owning characters philosophical self-justifications that aren’t just nonsense — they have a particular kind of self-serving pseudo-logic.
Best perf: Jim Sturgess is lovely. I saw THE BROWNING VERSION back in 1994 so I guess I saw him as a kid, but this was my first real exposure. Keith David is also great, but I most enjoyed Tom Hanks grotesque fancy-dress turn.
Cambridge and Edinburgh 1936
The amanuensis set-up made me think of Ken Russell’s TV play Song of Summer, but like all the storylines, this one turns into a thriller. I would have liked to see more of Edinburgh, of course.
Best perfs: Ben Whishaw is very affecting.
San Francisco 1973
Seems to channel bits of SILKWOOD, with its nuclear industry whistle-blower plot. Funny seeing West George Street in Glasgow, situated on a steep hill, standing in for San Francisco. Likewise, a Scottish bridge forms the approach to the power plant, which has been digitally painted in to the shot.
Best perfs: This is Berry’s chance to shine, but I also loved Brody Nicholas Lee, and Hugo Weaving as hitman Bill Smoke, a variant on his MATRIX nasty.
Niall Fulton, who plays The False Natan in NATAN, is standing just offscreen on the right, playing one of the diabolical Hoggins Brothers.
Tykwer’s comic relief episode (to which I contributed my few seconds) ties into the theme of the struggle for liberation, as Jim Broadbent tries to escape from an oppressive old people’s home. I guess it has some antecedents in the English comic novel, but I don’t know what. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST certainly seems relevant though.
Best perfs: It’s Broadbent’s show all the way, but the other oldsters are terrif.
Neo Seoul, Korea, 2144
This one has quite a lot in common with V FOR VENDETTA, which the Wachowskis produced, and it makes sense that this section of the novel would appeal to them. An innocent woman is adopted by a seemingly superhuman terrorist to battle oppression in a future society where some kind of holocaust has been instigated — it’s very similar, but the story world itself is very different, incorporated imagery reminiscent of BLADE RUNNER, ATTACK OF THE CLONES, THX 1138 and even SPEED RACER.
Best perfs: Doona Bae and Xun Zhu are both great, but I also loved James D’Arcy’s coolly “sympathetic” interrogator.
The Big Island of Hawaii 2321
Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, a post-nuclear adventure where everybody speaks a strange patois of degenerated English, must have been the influence here. By coincidence I just reading Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley, and since that features the culture clash between those who have devolved to barbarism and those who still have technology, that may also have figured in the mix. The filmmakers’ exploded structure pulls this out from the centre of the novel where it’s the only uninterrupted tale, and allows it to bookend the whole film, while weaving in and out. The last shot is a winner.
Best perf: Tom Hanks gets to do his conflicted hero thing here.
Asides from the good performances, the film is also full of strange impersonations, as actors are got up in prosthetics and funny voices to play different ages, genders and races, though interestingly the movie squeamishly eschews the blackface that so enlivened O LUCKY MAN!, the last obvious case of an ensemble cast playing multiple roles. Instead we get a lot of yellowface and some equally unconvincing instances of Korean actors playing white. This is all interesting.
I wasn’t offended in the least. I did wonder slightly at the intended effect, since the makeups are elaborate but not convincing at all, and not all of the actors are suited to chameleonic performances. Hanks makes a nicely repulsive quack, and an amusing Scottish landlord, and he does have a knack for the grotesque. Likewise, Hugo Weaving makes a good manly female nurse, and it’s a role which suits drag. I enjoyed Hugh Grant’s old age turn, even though he looks like a Spitting Image puppet under all that latex. (Incidentally, that humiliating arrest of his has really opened up a useful line in villainous sleaze for Grant: all his characters in CLOUD ATLAS are baddies.)
But mostly the film shows that actors are often better playing characters they are a little bit like — and one reason the film works as well as it does is that the more blatant disguises function mostly as novelty turns in storylines centred around characters played by actors roughly the right age, race and sex for their roles. It does add an amusing guessing-game element to the film, and the end credits have a LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER moment of revelation.