Have you read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas? (No, not that David Mitchell, the other one.) Whilst we didn’t think it was the ‘elegiac, radiant festival of prescience’ that The Times thought it was, the author’s chameleon mastery of voice was clear.
It is a work of great scope. In fact, read this for a summary, but to give those that want it the merest sneeze of a précis: Cloud Atlas is a set of six stories spread from the 19th century to the dystopian far future. The stories all overlap in some way; the journal of the 19th century story is read by a character in an early 20th century tale for instance. Predominant linking themes seem to be the balance of power, love, good and evil. Oh, and in some sense, the characters are reincarnated in each story.
In other words, the Wachowski siblings had their work cut out. And whilst the film is sumptuous to look at and the cast list is an agent’s wet dream—Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon—it doesn’t quite come off.
The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, rather than echoing the narrative structure of the book, in which the six stories are presented first in their introductory halves, then in their concluding halves in reverse order, the filmmakers chose to splice all the stories up together.
Though this technique helps chivvy the film along a bit (do remember your cushions and catheters—it’s almost three hours long) and spoon feeds slower members of the audience the connecting themes, it does so at the expense of any meaningful character development. As Whishaw’s character, scoundrel and composer Robert Frobisher, would appreciate, the issue here is one of rhythm, of cadence.
There is no respect for it and the suicides, heartbreaks and victories of all the characters are barely felt. The Wachowskis produced The Animatrix – why not have presented a series of short films enjoyed in one sitting instead of the manic melange this turned out to be?
Then there’s all the reincarnation stuff, with the actors taking new roles in each story. These reincarnations fall into two categories: Genuinely faultless transformations (Ben Wishaw’s middle aged housewife, Hugh Grant’s brutal tribal leader) and the laughable. Some are funny for the right reasons and are performed with a wink and a smile: Tom Hanks as Irish gangster turned author Dermot Hoggins and Hugh Grant as the ruthless Denholme Cavendish are fair examples. But others completely miss their mark. Hugo Weaving is spectacular throughout, but the choice to have him drag up as Nurse Noakes (think Nurse Ratched but with bigger balls), an abusive carer, undermines the darkness in the Timothy Cavendish storyline.
And then, we’ve got to say it, there’s the attempt to change the ethnicity of various cast members. Ultimately changing the eyes and voices of the actors is deeply odd and unconvincing. It didn’t work for Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice and it doesn’t work here. Nor can a Korean actress convincingly transform into a ginger English woman.
Bottom line? Read the book and remember that Hugh Grant can act.
Released in UK cinemas on Friday 22 February 2013 by Warner Bros. Pictures.