Cloud Atlas is going to be far and away the most divisive film of 2012, but I don’t think it’s possible to fault it for shortage of chutzpah. David Mitchell’s 2005 novel — pipped to the Booker prize by Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, though in any other year it would surely have won — is a virtuoso plate-spinning exercise, an addictive feat of nested storytelling, and a sprawling treatise about human capacities for removing and reclaiming freedom. It’s amazing they’ve tried to adapt it at all, let alone as a single, near-three hour picture. In the hands of co-writers and directors the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer there was a danger of it mutating into a monstrous ballooning folly. So even more amazing is that it strays frequently in that direction but never quite bursts.
The movie offers such a mad array of plot threads, over six time frames from the mid-19th century to the distant, post-apocalyptic future, so much scenic diversity, and such a smorgasbord of out-there performances from a multitasking ensemble, that it’s impossible not to prefer some aspects of it to others. If you don’t like Tom Hanks playing a tattooed island primitive orating at a campfire, there’s always Tom Hanks as a scheming ship’s doctor with ratty beard and ghastly teeth, or Tom Hanks as a grasping 1930s flop-house landlord, Tom Hanks as a blond nuclear scientist wracking his conscience, or Tom Hanks as (gulp) a gold-chain-wearing East End gangster memoirist flinging his fiercest critic over a balcony.
And if you don’t like Tom Hanks at all, it’s not the end of the world (though that’s a subject often on Mitchell’s mind). He may narrowly get the most screen time, but the whole principal cast play multiple roles — some three or four, some as many as six. This isn’t structurally dictated by the book, and the movie proves inconsistent, verging on enjoyably random, in how it parcels out this boisterous sketch-book of performances. There’s continuity here and there: Hugo Weaving, probably still best-known as that proliferating evil suit from The Matrix, struts his stuff with typical hammy abandon as a sixfold baddie.
The main structural change is the intercutting of the six stories, which sat apart in Mitchell’s book and pivoted back on each other in the middle. The movie makes a major virtue of its slice-and-dice approach, cutting for effect, varying the pace with flair, and underlining Mitchell’s points about the cyclical problems of our race: this isn’t subtly done in the slightest, but subtlety is hardly ever the name of the game here. Momentum is. The weaker sections (there are two main offenders) are rarely allowed to annoy us for too long, and even the comical guessing-games of who’s behind each new make-up job provide jolts of weirdness and novelty. Yes, that really is Hugh Grant as a futuristic Korean pervert, and again as a marauding demonic tribesman in face-paint, and several other lip-smacking antagonists who aren’t mute. (He’s clearly having a blast, and nails his accent work better than anyone.)
The episodes tend to stand or fall by how well their protagonists are cast: Ben Whishaw, sparingly used in the other periods, is snugly ideal as a waspish composer’s Tom Ripley-esque amanuensis in the 1930s. Largely escaping prosthetics (or gender-swapping), Jim Broadbent is always very obviously Jim Broadbent (and spikily effective as the composer), but comes into his own as shambolic publisher Timothy Cavendish in the present-day bit. Some of Mitchell’s most biting comedic writing may be a little dulled here, but the Ealing Comedy-style breakout from an old people’s home is frisky, crowd-pleasing stuff.
Halle Berry whites up ever so weirdly as a Jewish socialite, but not for long, and she’s a minor revelation as the intrepid journalist in charge of the 1970s San Francisco section, a China Syndrome knock-off with equally good James D’Arcy as an ageing whistleblower (and link to the previous section). Meanwhile, Korean actress Doona Bae is pretty wonderful as Sonmi-451, a fabricant (clone) waitress in the New Seoul of 2144, talked out of her pre-programmed servitude by a rebel-philosopher lover (Jim Sturgess).
Chronologically speaking, the outer time-frames are the dullest, the far-future one in particular failing because Mitchell’s energetic stab at science-fantasy patois, handed to Hanks and Berry, can’t survive its transplant off the page. It’s a shame that this story’s required to frame the movie, supplying a cod-mystical overlay that does its internal ideas a disservice. Complaints that it’s all just one big congested barrel-load of kitschy genre clichés may come at the picture thick and fast — just wait — but Mitchell’s whole project was pastiching literary formulae to play with the hand-me-down nature of storytelling, so the Wachowskis and Tykwer surely deserve a pass on this.
There’s plenty to argue with, more to scoff at, and some uninitiated viewers may well choose to check out of engagement early. But it’s also a dizzily generous ride, scored with real grandeur, and even its silliest elements are guilty pleasures.
Cloud Atlas (u/a)
Director: Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon Running time: 164 minutes