Cloud Atlas (2013)
February 12, 2013 3 Comments
While reading the diaries of a young American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) busy concluding business during the Californian gold-rush, amanuensis Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) produces “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”, a masterpiece in part inspired by the dreams of an aging composer. After a chance meeting with Frobisher’s ex-lover in 1973 puts her up against Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant), journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) pens a crime novel based on her investigations into his oil company, to be published 27 years later by one Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent). In the future, the plight of a small rebellion and their clone saviour (Doona Bae) continues to impact the life of Zachry (Tom Hanks), 106 years after The Fall.
Written, produced and directed by the Wachowski siblings and Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas is one of the most expensive independent movies of all time. The film’s ambitiousness goes far beyond finding financers, however, as it attempts to translate David Mitchell’s labyrinthine, meandering and damn-near impossible novel for the big screen.
While Ang Lee has already filmed the unfilmable with Yann Martel’s Oscar-nominated Life Of Pi, that story only dared to tackle such everyday concepts as life, love and faith. Cloud Atlas, on the other hand, does not stop there; split into six separate but intertwining stories, the film uses twelve actors, unprecedented prosthesis and countless characters to ruminate on everything from racism, sexism and homophobia to art, fate and the very fabric of time and space.
Unlike most multi-strand stories of its ilk, there isn’t a single dud note to be found in Cloud Atlas‘ pages, leitmotif or frames. Each thread, though diverse, holds its own as each weaves in and out of the other competing and complementing narratives. Whether it’s the poignancy of one composer’s search for inspiration, the comedy of one old codgers attempted escape from an old folk’s home, or one saviour’s salvation in a dystopian future, the filmmakers build an entire universe — generation by generation — that is forever bold, believable and utterly breathtaking.
That they manage to introduce each of the six strands without immediately losing half of the audience is an incredible achievement; that they continue to develop and explore the individual stories across the remaining running time is something else entirely. Not only do the filmmakers manage to cut from story to story in a way that is fluid and meaningful, but they manage to build to simultaneous moments of overwhelming power and emotion as well — the structure simulating the cyclical nature of its source material without ever becoming repetitive.
Even more astonishing is the work done in front of the camera. During development the decision was made to recycle the core cast across the various stories to add to the overarching sense of inter-connectivity between past, present and future. It works beautifully, as the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and — perhaps most surprisingly of all — Hugh Grant are able to showcase their talents, and within a single film put paid to their individual pigeonholes and typecasts. The actors, unlimited by age, race or gender, each deliver a plethora of perfectly-judged performances. Even if the make-up occasionally falters, their abilities never do.
That said, it would be easy to laugh at Cloud Atlas — and I’m sure many will. Heck, there are days — years, even — in which I’m certain I would do, too. While some of the storylines are funnier than others (intentionally, that is), there is a grandiosity and pretense that lingers throughout. When grappling with such enormous themes and while boldly pushing the boundaries of technology and belief, however, you will always run the risk of alienating audiences, and the accomplishments of Cloud Atlas are so vast that it really doesn’t matter how you react to it — just that you do react. And that you keep reacting for many years to come as the film is studied, debated and slowly unravelled.
Having now seen the film twice (though admittedly only once in English) I’m more convinced than ever that Cloud Atlas is something truly special. It’s a masterpiece for the ages; a master-work that takes on the universe and wins, somehow managing to tell just about every story imaginable in the space of three hours. How it wasn’t nominated for Best Film, let alone Best Adapted Screenplay or Best Make-Up is still beyond me, but then even after two viewings so too is much of the film.