A 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.
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