Nigh on three hours of storytelling that takes us from the South Pacific in the mid-19th century to a distant, post-nuclear future: when the Wachowskis teamed up with Tom Tykwer to film David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in Babelsberg, big guns boomed.
The core notion of Mitchell’s novel, told in six interlocking narratives, espouses a kind of Buddhist chaos theory in which acts of kindness or cruelty, individually committed, reverberate through the ages, ultimately turning the perpetrators of those acts into the people they have the potential to become. How to effect these transformations? With time – and narrative complexity, which brings the early anti-slavery sentiments of Adam, Mitchell’s first narrator, to full fruition in Zachry, the resolute defender of residual liberties several post-apocalyptic centuries later. The notion that goodness can grow and achieve transcendent triumph is appealing. In Mitchell’s novel, it is also brilliantly represented: both ideally, as a linear progression in time from bad to good and narratively, as an arc through time encompassing a complex circle of cause and effect.
Despite its length, some inspiring special effects and good casting, the film cannot match these achievements. But does it provide a filmic alternative? Its strong suit, indubitably, is the repeated use of actors to variously embody incarnations of maturing souls. And the actors chosen to consummate this transformative process in successive stories carry their weight. Tom Hanks’ progress from grasping ship doctor to a benign, almost biblical shepherd of souls is well executed. Halle Berry’s transition from minor muse to gutsy investigative journalist and, finally, to courageous seeker of a new world is equally satisfying. Hugh Grant and Jim Broadbent are well cast, occasionally against type, as literary agents and captains, warriors and seers. Of the less frequently featured actors, not one disappoints and several (Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess) are outstanding. But even in its narratively simpler version, the film resorts to repetition to connect the dots: showings of the comet-shaped birthmark passed from generation to generation alternate with verbal iteration of the idea that every act has consequences.
Mitchell’s quasi-philosophical subtext on causal versus eternal time is fleshed out using devices available to a writer. In contrast, the movie’s rendition of these deliberations is simplistic. The Wachowskis have a talent for multipart stories and a penchant for epic tales of good versus bad. But Mitchell is a novelist, not a comic author. This one might have gotten away.
Cloud Atlas | Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski (Germany, USA, Hong Kong, Singapore 2012) with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and many, many more. Starts November 15