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Movie review: Cloud Atlas

Updated on February 23, 2013

The word ambitious is not one often used to describe mainstream releases. After viewing this feature however, it's the one word that almost defines every aspect of the project.

It's based on David Mitchell's 2004 best-selling novel of the same name, which weaved six related stories with thought-provoking complexity. The film manages to transpose all of these stories intact, which is just the first indication of not only it's faithfulness to its source material, but its ambitious nature generally as a whole.

As Zachry (Tom Hanks) starts to weave a tale, it's the start of an epic yarn spanning years throughout history.

It takes in Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a young lawyer in 1849, travelling by ship to a group of islands, acting in behalf of his father-in-law, to finish an on-going business arrangement. It's a journey that opens his eyes to the ways of the world.

Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) a musician from Cambridge travels to Edinburgh, 1936, where he is to meet and hopefully work for the famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), but their working relationship isn't without complications.

With her father being a renowned writer, it's no surprise that Luisa Rey would follow in his literary footsteps. It's 1973 and Luisa is a journalist, following up a story of conspiracy in San Francisco. It's a huge story, and one that has its fair share of risks, as she soon discovers to her own costs.

Now 2012, and 65-year-old Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a publisher, is enjoying a surprising success from one of his authors. The author however, is less lucky, spending time behind bars for a dastardly deed. He sends from friends of his to see Timothy, to enquire somewhat heavy-handedly, that they will want a huge sum of money on behalf of their friend ASAP. Or else. In order to avoid bodily harm,Timothy turns to his brother for help. His brother takes this opportunity to trick his sibling, putting him into another difficult scenario.

At one point it seems that Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), is happy with her life, working as a server in a fast food restaurant in Neo Seoul, 2144. But one chance meeting with rebel Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess) changes her life forever.

And zachry himself, some time in the future, decides to help out the futuristic Meronym (Berry), who has asked him to show her the way to the communication centre known as Cloud Atlas. The journey there however, is fraught with many dangers.

The idea of weaving these stories together sounds a daunting task. It's perhaps for this reason, why it needed three directors to helm it; German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) teamed up with the Wachowskis (no longer introduced as the brothers, as Larry now goes by the name Lana, after announcing herself as transgender), who are no stranger to the concept of epic, after their Matrix trilogy. Due to the regular inter-cutting of each story, it's difficult to tell whether having three directors was a huge help or hindrance to the production. What is certain is that their collective effort delivers an impressive vision.

At its best, Cloud Atlas is a brave and bold piece of story-telling. It may be overly demanding, in terms of making an audience work hard in putting the bigger picture together, as well as in the time it takes for the film to play out – just short of the three hour mark – but it would be wrong to say that it wasn't rewarding.

Not only does it have a great, but also has a troupe mentality about it, with all the big actors involved having multiple roles throughout. This helps the concept of each story interweaving with others, and being connected in way or another, more acceptable and believable.

The pay off for this perhaps is that with so many stories and so many actors in different roles telling them, it's difficult for any one character/actor to be singled out for any one performance. But if you continue the troupe analogy though, it's strong collective performance.

Much may also be made of the duration, which at three hours, is enough to put the fear of God in anyone. But again, possibly being an indication of the great teamwork in the directing department, it really doesn't drag in the slightest.

It's not entirely flawless however. In telling so many varied stories at once, the film invariably produces some stories stronger than others, and that's very much the case here. It's aided by some pretty impressive editing however, so you never feel that you are drifting that far away from any one story line.

The biggest issue is sense; it doesn't really make any. Sure there are connecting themes, but the film as a whole makes us much sense as the build instructions for a unit from Ikea. But surprisingly, that's part of its charm. It's less about the narrative journey and more about the overall cinematic one.

It has the kind of reckless ambition that is rarely seen these days, with its all or nothing mentality. For all its many faults, Cloud Atlas is the kind of adventurous film-making experience that should be applauded.

Considering its source material, it shouldn't work – and many will say that it doesn't – but like the recent Life of Pi, it's an exemplary example of a book almost near impossible to film, being brought to life with intense passion and energy.

When current film-making trends are enough to make you shake a weary head, Cloud Atlas has an air of bravery and bravado about it, making it compelling and essential viewing for lovers of film around the world.

4 booms

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