David Gritten reviews Cloud Atlas

By David Gritten , Friday 22 February 2013

There are many reasons to find fault with the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s expansive novel Cloud Atlas, says David Gritten. But lack of nerve and ambition cannot be counted among them.
A scene from the film 'Cloud Atlas' © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. in The United States of America and CanadaA scene from the film 'Cloud Atlas' © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. in The United States of America and Canada

Over the course of almost three hours (172 minutes to be precise) it offers a giddying multitude of stories, set in six periods of time, from the 19th century to the future. It cost $100 million.  Each of its leading actors assumes several roles. And it boasts not just one director but three – Germany’s Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings Andy and Lana, who gave us The Matrix series. This knowledge makes it feels daunting even before it starts.

There’s another complication: Mitchell’s novel was a hard enough read, but at least its story lines were chronological. In the film they’re jumbled up, so one moves from future to past and back again, and between continents, as if at random. It’s not an easy film, and it will divide audiences sharply.

In fact, its flavour and its complexity are difficult to convey in words. But let’s take the multiple roles of one of its stars, Tom Hanks, as an example. During the film’s course we see him as a tattooed, scarred old shaman from the future; as a Machiavellian ship’s doctor with bad teeth; with his hair dyed blond as a nuclear scientist; and as a writer-gangster with an indeterminate accent (Cockney? Irish?) who hurls one of his critics off a balcony.

It’s dizzying – a film with so many ideas and so many intertwining plots that it’s hard to keep track. Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant (at one point risibly playing a cannibal with face paint), Halle Berry and Ben Whishaw are others given a wide range of characters.

Sometimes the results are electrifying, and sometimes they simply fall flat. The theme of this whole gigantic structure seems to be that humanity is doomed to make the same mistakes repeatedly and we’re all destined to meet each other again and again in different ages.

That’s fine, but it doesn’t excuse some ludicrous, borderline-offensive casting choices. At one point Berry is made up as white to play a German-Jewish refugee, and English actor Jim Sturgess’s features are digitally altered to make him look Asian.

Films with this scope and range come along rarely. Overall, I’m glad to have experienced Cloud Atlas in all its uniqueness. But I don’t think I’ll be rushing to see it again.

Read David Gritten every month in the the Out There section of Saga Magazine - full of unmissable events, book reviews, art, music, special offers and a whole lot more. Find out why we're the UK's best-selling magazine: Subscribe here now .

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.


  • A scene from the film 'Hitchcock'

    David Gritten reviews Hitchcock, No and Untouchables

    Saga's film critic David Gritten reviews new cinema releases Hitchcock and No, plus the uplifting French film, Untouchable, out on DVD.

    Read on

  • Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in 'Flight' © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

    David Gritten reviews 'Flight'

    Saga film critic David Gritten reviews Denzel Washington’s new film Flight.

    Read on

  • A scene from the film 'Lincoln'. Photo by David James © 2012 DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All Rights Reserved.

    David Gritten reviews Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln

    Saga film critic David Gritten reviews two of the year’s most talked-about films.

    Read on

  • Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz star in Columbia Pictures' 'Django Unchained'. Photo by Andrew Cooper

    The Sessions and Django Unchained reviews

    Saga film critic David Gritten reviews The Sessions and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

    Read on

  • Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables

    David Gritten reviews Les Misérables

    Saga film critic David Gritten finds much to admire in the big-screen version of the megahit musical Les Misérables

    Read on

  • A scene from 'The Impossible'

    David Gritten on this week's films

    Saga's film expert finds his expectations confounded by the dramatisation of a real-life story.

    Read on

  • A scene from the film 'Life of Pi' © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

    David Gritten reviews Life of Pi

    Saga's film expert on Ang Lee's dazzling adaptation of a much-loved book.

    Read on

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

    Review: The Hobbit

    Peter Jackson's epic-length re-telling of JRR Tolkien's children's story is in our film expert's sights.

    Read on

  • A scene from 'Trouble with the Curve', starring Clint Eastwood © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

    David Gritten's film reviews

    Film critic David Gritten reviews Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, Trouble with the Curve and takes a look at the British film, Sightseers.

    Read on

  • A scene from the film 'Silver Linings Playbook' by JoJo Whilden 2011 © The Weinstein Company

    David Gritten reviews 'Silver Linings Playbook'

    Saga's film expert enjoys an unconventional romantic comedy.

    Read on

  • A scene from the film Amour

    David Gritten reviews Amour

    Michael Haneke's unflinching but rewarding Amour asks tough questions about how a couple is affected when one becomes ill.

    Read on

  • Singin' in the Rain

    Encore theatre tickets

    Great deals and exclusive offers for Saga customers on West End theatre tickets, including matinee club offers, meet the cast events and 2 for 1 deals.


  • Saga Book Shop


  • Saga Shop

    Fantastic prices and free standard P&P to UK mainland deliveries.



Type your comment here

 characters remaining.

David Gritten on film

David Gritten has been Saga Magazine’s film critic for 10 years and also writes for the Daily Telegraph. He lived and worked in Los Angeles for 10 years, and edited Halliwell’s film guide for 2008-09. Fred Astaire, Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar are among his film heroes.

Saga Magazine

For more fascinating stories and insightful articles, why not try Saga Magazine for just £1 for 3 issues.

Save £10 on a year’s membership to English Heritage

Step into England’s story with a 12 month membership for as little as £29. Simply use SG10W at the checkout.