(MA15+) ★★★ ✩ National release from Thursday
(MA15+) ★★ ✩✩ Limited release from Thursday
MANY people believed British author David Mitchell’s awardwinning novel Cloud Atlas, published in 2004, was unfilmable — but it must have been terribly tempting to attempt to bring to the screen a series of interconnecting stories spanning 500 years, from the past to the distant future. When Hollywood bypassed the project it was taken up by a consortium of German companies involving the talented director Tom Tykwer, whose Run Lola Run (1998) is a small masterpiece of tension and cinematic skill. For Cloud Atlas, Tykwer shared the writing and direction with the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana (formerly Larry), famous for the Matrix trilogy. The result is a hugely ambitious attempt to bring intractable material to the screen — not entirely successful by any means but, on the other hand, never dull.
In the book, six stories were told, each set at a different moment in time, each representing a different genre — adventure, comedy — and each one interrupted at a crucial point. In addition, the protagonist at the centre of each succeeding story was seen to be reading — or watching — the previous story. The filmmakers necessarily have made considerable changes to this scenario.
In essence, the six stories in the film are as follows. In 1849, on a trip sailing the Pacific, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a young adventurer, befriends Autua (David Gyasi), a slave. In Britain in 1936, Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), after an affair with Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), obtains a job as assistant to a famous composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). In San Francisco in 1973, journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is investigating a dodgy nuclear facility and falls foul of Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). In London in 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) finds himself confined against his will in a nursing home run by formidable Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving). In Neo Seoul in 2144, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is being interrogated by the Archivist (D’Arcy) about her part in a revolution against the state. Finally, on ‘‘ Big Island 106 winters after The Fall’’, Zachry (Tom Hanks), a grizzled goatherd who speaks a strange language, joins forces with Meronym (Berry), who comes from an altogether higher strata of humanity.
Emphasising that all these stories are interconnected, that, as Sonmi-451 explains, ‘‘ From womb to tomb we are bound to others — past and present, and by each crime, past and present, we birth our future’’, the Wachowskis and Tykwer cast their actors in multiple roles. Thus Weaving not only convincingly plays the nurse (who looks like a fugitive from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) of 2012, but also a gunman in 1973, a middle European colleague of the composer in 1936 and a sinister creature called Old Georgie in the distant future. The same goes for other members of the cast, even — most unwisely — to the point that Sturgess, D’Arcy and Broadbent all appear as Asian characters (with the sort of make-up once used in Hollywood films such as The Good Earth) and