Film review: Time-travellers reach for the sky in Cloud Atlas



If ambition and daring were the only markers of film-making genius, then Cloud Atlas would be a movie for the ages, a dazzling, unrepeatable masterpiece. It isn't one, not even close, which should remind us that great movies also require things like discipline, clarity, focus, and – what might be one of ambition's counterweights – a sense of humility.

Not having read David Mitchell's much-praised 2004 novel on which it's based, I don't have a particular axe to grind regarding its faithfulness as an adaptation, but that the trio of directors – Andy and Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer – have taken it on at all surely deserves a tip of the hat.

Lasting just short of three hours, Cloud Atlas contains multitudes. It mingles and matches six different plots in a bamboozling mosaic that hopscotches through eras, continents, even planets. Chronologically, its starting point is a slavery melodrama in the South Pacific of 1849; then the story of a musical prodigy traduced in 1930s England; a nuclear conspiracy thriller in 1973 San Francisco; a black comedy of incarceration in 2012; a sci-fi yarn of clones and revolution in 2144; and, finally, a raggedy space epic set in the 24th century.

The film loops the stories one inside another, challenging us to spot the echoes, resonances and crosscurrents that animate them. Forster's famous dictum "Only connect" could have been its epigraph. That connection, it eventually becomes clear, is a moral one: we owe to each other the responsibility of freedom, in whatever universe we happen to be living.

To help the audience along (it's still Hollywood) the film-makers have decided to use well-known faces in multiple roles, sometimes so heavily disguised that you may struggle to recognise them. The Victorian section, for instance, starts out as a false-nose contest between Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon before settling on Jim Sturgess's idealistic attorney, who en route to the US finds his humanity tested when a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) throws himself on his mercy. This one is the Wachowski siblings' best effort.

Tykwer's trio are to my mind the highlights. Ben Whishaw plays Cambridge musician Robert Frobisher, who in 1936 becomes embroiled in the life of a manipulative composer (Jim Broadbent). Frobisher's symphony – The Cloud Atlas Sextet – is the movie's musical Holy Grail. His lover Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) reappears in the 1973 plot as an elderly scientist who connects with Halle Berry's investigative reporter. Broadbent then returns as a feckless publisher who has been falsely imprisoned at a draconian nursing home, offering a late flurry of farce and the spectacle of Hugo Weaving as a gorgon nurse. Cross-dressing recurs throughout the movie, blurring genders and perhaps slyly echoing Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski's own journey from man to woman.

The first hour and a half of this is completely absorbing, by the way, if only because you're trying to piece it all together. Once past the two-hour mark you realise that the set-ups are so much more interesting than the resolutions. This is very noticeable in the two futuristic, Wachowski-directed episodes. The tale of a young replicant (Doona Bae) on the run with a rebel leader (Sturgess) in 2144 Seoul has its moments, several reminiscent of Blade Runner.

The distant space saga, however, in which Hanks and Halle Berry speak a made-up pidgin argot, is pure baloney, and the make-up is off the scale. Check Hugh Grant as a raping-and-pillaging warrior in Orc facepaint, and you instantly understand why he limits his repertoire to stuttering English gents. His role could have been cut without much trouble. I would also have ditched Hanks's impersonation of a Celtic literary thug (who can they mean?) and a line of Frobisher's about "what happened between Vyvyan and I" – not the grammar of an educated man of the 1930s.

One could carry on carping, but in the end Cloud Atlas survives its lapses and misjudgments. It's tried something new, and that's good enough.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk