Reviewing a favourite film is often as terrifying as stepping into a cage full of lions, wearing nothing but freshly grilled rib eye steaks. Make that famished lions and add a dash of blood-infused peppercorn sauce to those steaks and you get the sublime fear of reviewing the cinematic odyssey that is, Cloud Atlas.
Why am I here? What is my purpose? And if I have a purpose, what is the point in fulfilling it? I’m sure I can’t be the only one to be caught in a continuing battle with these questions. Looking for answers seems like the next logical step but sometimes this act of looking can be met with the same jarring queries. I have come to realise that, for me, watching films is a large part of my education – not only in generic school subjects but education for life. By some fluke at Christmas 2013, I was handed a tightly wrapped gift that I hadn’t asked for; a gift that unbeknownst to me, would help push me towards the beginning of answers to these questions several months later.
I should probably begin where it all started. The concept was conceived in David Mitchell’s 2004 novel titled (if you can guess) Cloud Atlas. The book is comprised of six nested stories, each linking to the other in a subtle connection through time. Mitchell has described the main characters as reincarnations of each other, “the same souls in different bodies”. The idea is life-affirming in itself, like a big ‘you’re doing great’ thumbs up. We are not, despite how many of us may feel at times, alone. There is always someone there, present, past, future. In the words of one of the key characters, Robert Frobisher, “My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.” While the novel received wide-spread critical acclaim, I just couldn’t get into it. I find it hard to give up on a book, however infuriating or depressing, and Cloud Atlas was neither, just nothing. Impassive. I couldn’t wring out any emotion, feel any empathy, excitement, inspiration. But the film was different.
Everything about the film exudes energy and passion and intensity: everything I just couldn’t be granted by the book. It’s a tsunami of emotion. It sounds horribly clichéd but, while watching, at times it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. While the book works in twelve-ish sections (two for each story), the film mixes them all together. You are constantly jumping from 1930s Belgium, to a dystopian future Korea or an American ship on the shores of an 1849 New Zealand, all the while juggling six different narratives. But it works. The stories are brought to life by the gaggle of actors – from Hollywood top dogs à la Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, to English theatricals, Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy – each playing several characters in the intertwining tale. With the help of Oscar-winning makeup and a change of accent, the metamorphosis that occurs is, more often than not, quite startling, changing genders and even races. The editing is one of the film’s greatest assets. The pairing of like themes, events and character movements to create a sense of flow and rhythm is inspired, a role in the filmmaking process often overlooked but, in this case, a credit impossible to be ignored.
The music. THE MUSIC. The big German three in film composing (Tykwer, Klimel and Heil) have written the score of, as far as I’m concerned, the human race. The Cloud Atlas Sextet is a piece that my ears will never, under any circumstance, refuse. I think if I ever go deaf, I would just play that melody over and over in my head, the ebb and flow of something ineffably ineffable. And while your ears are guaranteed ultimate pleasure, your eyes are not neglected. Far from it, in fact. It is clear the cinematography will be luxuriously gorgeous from the first millisecond, if not before (if that is at all possible). It makes you want to take big heart-shaped bites out of the screen, consuming the visual bliss of every damn frame. I’d pay good money to see an exhibition of all the shots in the film, each printed and ornately framed – they really are gallery-worthy.
This is a film that demands a second watch. The branches connecting each leaf of the story become clearer on each tantalising viewing and yet an element is always left hidden, patiently waiting to be found. The voice of Cloud Atlas will, I hope, echo into the future. It’s been said many times but perhaps the mixed reviews are a sign of something great to come. The Shining, The Third Man, even Psycho didn’t completely win over the public and critics at first, but look at them now. In the meantime, I’ll try and re-read the book. And maybe start a ‘Hugh Grant’s unexpected appearances in Cloud Atlas‘ appreciation society.
If you want to be inspired to inspire your future generations; if you want to be reminded of your place in this ever-growing population; if you want to witness Ben Whishaw as an ageing woman, you know what to do.