by Padraic Coffey
The Light House Cinema book club takes place on Monday 25th February. The topic for discussion is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, following a screening of its adaptation by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer.
Certain sections of the media, in a not entirely serious fashion, have drawn parallels between two of the films that battled it out at the 2013 Academy Awards. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln both present viewers with a distinctive take on the subject of human slavery, specific to the US of the mid-Nineteenth Century. And yet, overlooked at the Oscars was a film that may have made for a better depiction of servitude than either of the aforementioned titles, had it stayed as faithful to its source material in thematic as narrative content. Published in 2004, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a barnstorming critical success, short-listed for the Booker Prize, as well as a host of other literary awards. Recurring throughout its uniquely complex structure, spanning several centuries, is the dominance of one group over another; as Adam Ewing notes in the opening journal entries of the novel, “the casual brutality lighter races show the darker”. This tribalism manifests itself in everything from the ‘pureblood’ inhabitants of a futuristic dystopia to a bar full of jersey-clad football supporters in the present day.
After several years of production difficulties, which included channelling the filmmakers’ own personal finances into the film, Cloud Atlas, co-directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, arrives in cinemas. It is clearly a labour of love for those involved with the project, but may distance audiences unfamiliar with Mitchell’s original text. Adapting Cloud Atlas was never going to be an easy proposition – divided into six separate time periods, the book is essentially half-a-dozen novellas, subtly referencing one another while maintaining their own unrelated storyline. Taken as a whole, it is compelling, challenging and exhausting. That the Wachowskis and Tykwer have managed to translate such vastly differing milieus to the screen it to be applauded, and may explain, if not entirely excuse, the divergence of their attention from the novel’s preoccupation with human bondage of one kind or another.
The film begins brilliantly, with a rapid montage of its various leading characters, edited together in a manner not unlike the credit sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic ensemble piece Magnolia. This includes Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), stationed on Chatham Isle in the Pacific Ocean in the mid-Nineteenth Century; Frobisher (Ben Wishaw), a foppish but extremely gifted composer in 1930s Britain; Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) a Seventies reporter investigating strange goings on in a nuclear power plant; Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a London-based publisher fleeing debt-collectors in 2012; Sonmi-451, a clone in futuristic ‘Neo’ Seoul, Korea and Zachary (Tom Hanks) a tribesman on a post-apocalyptic island in the Twenty-Fourth Century. This wonderfully confident pre-credit sequence suggests a taster of things to come. And yet, the filmmaker’s decision to tell all six stories in parallel, cross-cutting between eras and locations, frustratingly undermines the strength of each individual tale.
Mitchell’s novel is divided into a total of eleven chapters. In contrast, the film switches narratives well over a hundred times. This sometimes gives the effect of watching a near-three hour trailer. The Wachowkis proved them themselves masters of futuristic science-fiction action with the Matrix trilogy. Here, against their better judgement, they split up set-pieces in the visually opulent Neo Seoul section, reducing what should have been a stunning sequence to an exasperatingly overproduced collage of imagery. This pace is maintained for the entire duration, preventing casual viewers from grasping the essence of what is taking place. Simply put, it is difficult to imagine audiences will be able to follow this adaptation without having read the novel.
But there is much to admire in Cloud Atlas. Few films in recent years have offered such dazzling vistas, not least in the section with Zachary and Meronym (Halle Berry) traversing a precipitous mountain (the motivation of which is rendered indistinct through Zachary’s contrived, unintelligible dialect). Much has been written of the decision to cast actors in roles seemingly outside their own ethnic group, such as Hugo Weaving as Asian and Halle Berry as white, yet these controversies are premature misinterpretations of the filmmakers’ intentions. This is no Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Jazz Singer-style exaggeration of racial features, though the makeup ranges from impressive to God-awful (take a bow, Hugh Grant as Jim Broadbent’s brother).
The film’s snubbing at the Academy Awards – even in technical categories – and failure to recoup its budget domestically is a testament to the unwillingness of many audiences to embrace a cinematic style outside of the mainstream, and something of a shame, as Cloud Atlas equals if not surpasses several of the highest grossing films of 2012 in ambition, despite its flaws. Perhaps in Mitchell’s native Europe (he is a resident of County Cork) a more appreciative audience can be found.