Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, James D’Arcy and Doona Bae.
Directed by: Andy & Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer
The technology that exists in filmmaking today makes the term an ‘unfilmable novel’ practically redundant, however some do provide a greater challenge than others. David Mitchell’s genre crossing, multi-narrative book, covering past eras and times to come is nothing short of an epic, and a big screen adaptation couldn’t be either. The Wachowskis, most famous for making The Matrix Trilogy, team up with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International) to make this incredibly ambitious piece of cinema.
Tykwer was meant to direct Cloud Atlas alone, but at some point during development, and working with the Wachowskis on the screenplay, they decided to co-direct, and whatever the reason, it seems to have only benefitted the film. Not every director can tackle every genre as well as someone else, not to mention the extra time it would take for an individual to handle six separate stories. The six story lines were split evenly between the Wachowskis and Tykwer. The brother-sister duo directed The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, set in 1849, and the two stories in the future, An Orison of Somni-451, set in Neo Seoul 2144, and Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After, in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, 2321. Tom Tykwer takes the helm on the other three, Letters from Zedelghem, the setting of which has moved from Belgium to Edinburgh (1936), Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, in 1973 San Francisco, and The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, set in present day London. (These segment titles relate to the book, the film doesn’t title them, just gives dates and locations).
A film of this scale could only have been made with big names attached to star, and the list is quite long: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Hugh Grant all feature in all six story lines, with roles of varying sizes. Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw feature in five, Susan Sarandon and James D’Arcy feature in four, and the rest of the cast also feature at least twice, including Doona Bae (who plays Somni-451), Keith David, and David Gyasi. With the exception of D’Arcy, no one plays the same character twice, and each character they play is very different. Halle Berry plays black, white and Indian women, James D’Arcy takes on a Korean character (though the make up is not so convincing), as does Ben Whishaw, who, like Hugo Weaving, also plays a female character, and Hugh Grant is barely recognisable as most of his characters, thanks to brilliant make-up and costume work on him. Credit should go to both the actors, and the hair and make-up team for creating these characters for the screen so well that for most of them you’d have to wait for the credits to realise who played who. The actors are at their best though when they don’t have a load of prosthetics on their face. The highlight in terms of performances are Doona Bae, as Somni-451, Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy as Robert Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith, respectively, in Letters From Zedelghem, D’Arcy’s reprisal of the role as an older man in The First Luisa Rey Mystery, and Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After.
So much detail has gone into each individual part, I could easily discuss each of the six stories as separate films, but I have a word count limit. The weaker parts are the ones that seem to have less that connect it to the other stories, which is true of the novel as well. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is one of these. While his name comes up in the part that follows chronologically, and the conclusion of his tale mirrors a recurring theme in other segments, there’s no strong connection that makes an argument for its place amongst the six. The Frobisher story, about a young composer working with an idol of his, Vyvyan Ayrs, and Luisa Rey’s are closely linked, as are the Somni-451 and Sloosha’s tales. The links between the stories are what keep you interested as the narrative jumps around between different centuries from the past and in the future. As much as one scene may draw you in, when the setting switches so dramatically you need to be as invested in the next one as you were in the last. If you care about only one of the stories, the three hours will move very slowly. On the whole, the three directors have done enough, in my opinion, for their audience to remain interested throughout. It is inevitable that audiences will have their own preferences story wise. Mine are Letters From Zedelghem, for being where the Cloud Atlas Sextet begins and Ben Whishaw’s performance, An Orison of Somni-451 for its plot, and for its comic value and Jim Broadbent, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, though the strongest part of it is when it’s referenced in 2144.
Like any novel adaptation, things are cut from the source material, even in a film as long as Cloud Atlas. Letters From Zedelghem is missing the most from its original form in the novel, entirely skipping out the part involving Ayrs’ daughter Eva, but instead choosing to focus on the romance between Frobisher and Sixsmith, which is a stronger love story, and actually ends up working as a nod to its written form, as the letters written to Rufus are given a greater significance than they would receive in a different adaptation of the novel. The back-story to Luisa Rey’s kid neighbour, Javier, is missing as well, but I can imagine it only made that part of the film drag. Overall it is a faithful adaptation, it even adds another level of the future by book ending the film with scenes involving the characters from Sloosha’s Crossin’ a few years on.
The score, composed by Tykwer himself with Jimmy Klimek and Reinhold Heil is magnificent. According to the book, the Cloud Atlas Sextet is the most beautiful piece of music ever written, and I wouldn’t necessarily go that far in praising it but it certainly is wonderful to listen to, even on repeat. How the score has been ignored by the Academy Awards, I do not understand. The film deserves nominations in multiple categories, but didn’t receive any such acknowledgment. The amount of work that went into just this one film should be recognised, and it’s a bonus that it happens to be of great quality.
Cloud Atlas is a mess, but in the most cinematic way possible, and it succeeds because of it. It is a film that requires a little patience, and accepting you will lose three hours of your life, but they won’t be wasted. Some pre-existing knowledge would be helpful, and I would never normally suggest it, but maybe just Wikipedia the book before seeing the film if you don’t have time to read David Mitchell’s wonderful novel (which you should make time to read at some point). There is so much going on, everything is bound to find something they can appreciate, it deserves to be given a chance.