Cloud Atlas: A long, frustrating and unsatisfying journey

by Michelle McGlynn

Cloud Atlas“I believe that if you, dear reader, can extend your patience for just a moment, you will find there is a method to this tale of madness”, Jim Broadbent’s voiceover tells us in the opening of Cloud Atlas. This is the key to this film, your ability or inability to do this will determine whether you will love or loathe Cloud Atlas. This film is divisive. If you can extend your patience for a three hour “moment”, allow yourself not to overthink what is unfolding on the screen before you and not let yourself be distracted by the gimmicks then chances are you will be delighted with Cloud Atlas. If you are unable to do this, then you are in for a long hard slog, one that will reap little reward.

Cloud Atlas is of course based on the David Mitchell novel of the same name. It was considered “unfilmable” by many including Mitchell himself. The tale consists of six stories, each set in a different period stretching from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic 24th century. The stories also cover a range of genres from melodrama, to crime, to thriller, to comedy and sci-fi. These stories are woven together with a tenuous thread connecting them. Each narrative concerns itself with freedom and the notion that we are all connected to each other, to our past and to our future and that the things we do have far-reaching consequences.

In an attempt to really drive home the point that our lives connect throughout the ages, directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer made the choice to cast each actor in several roles. It is likely that this idea seemed rather clever on its conception, but when it is brought to fruition it is merely a gimmick. Actors cross not only time but also race and gender. Halle Berry as a white, Jewish-German woman, Caucasian actors playing Asian characters and vice versa and Hugo Weaving playing a female nurse all serve to do little more than distract the audience and undermine the characters. Even when actors do not cross race or gender the make-up is so terribly conspicuous that your attention is drawn away from what is onscreen as you ponder where they could have found such a cheap and ridiculous looking prosthetic nose. In addition to this the audience is constantly playing a guessing game, trying to figure out who is beneath the mounds of make-up. Frankly, the film forces the notion of connectedness enough without requiring any of this nonsense.

Doona Bae as Sonmi-451 and as Tilda

Whether or not you enjoy Cloud Atlas, you have to applaud the audacity of the directors’ ambition. To take on the epic novel is a daunting task to say the least. The half dozen stories were divided between them. The Wachowskis chose the distant past and future. While Tykwer worked on the stories set in more modern times, the 1930’s, the 1970’s and the present day. Novelist David Mitchell has spoken of his satisfaction on how the film turned out. In a piece written for the Wall Street Journal he likens the adaptation to a pointillist mosaic. Mitchell goes on to write, “We stay in each of the six worlds just long enough for the hook to be sunk in, and from then on the film darts from world to world at the speed of a plate-spinner, revisiting each narrative for long enough to propel it forward.” Mitchell is correct in the manner and speed with which the film moves the narrative of each story along however I would argue that the spinning plates are wont to topple.

To rate the numerous performances in Cloud Atlas would require an essay itself. They range from wonderful, to adequate, to laughable and that is just one actor. Tom Hanks delivers quality performances for the most part. As Zachary in the post-apocalyptic Hawaii story, his performance is undone as he speaks in a new English dialect that sees him babble urgently about the “true true”. Any possibility of tense drama is made impossible, as the dialogue is either incomprehensible or risible. Meanwhile, Hanks’ attempt at an Irish accent will make you cringe to no end.

Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) and Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw)

Jim Broadbent is entertaining as editor Timothy Cavendish. He enjoys playing the broad comedy in Cavendish’s farce. Ben Whishaw is perfect as the witty, talented and passionate Robert Frobisher, an aspiring composer in the 1930s. Model-turned-actress Doona Bae delivers a strong performance as a fabricant in the 2300s created to serve in a fast food establishment but who goes on to lead a revolution.

There are some genuine, intelligent and beautiful moments to be found in Cloud Atlas. However, the audience must endure a lot of self-important, pseudo-intellectual rubbish in order to find these. Ultimately, these moments are too few and far between to make the journey worthwhile. The very things that mark this film’s downfall may work well on the page but they do not translate here. Perhaps Cloud Atlas should have remained “unfilmable”.

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