Dir: Christopher Nolan. Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine. 12A cert, 150 mins
Will Tenet save cinema? We’ve somehow let everything ride on a single film, the first studio tentpole to be released since the pandemic began. We’re convinced it can take the pressure. Christopher Nolan’s films have always been great, lumbering beasts of cinema – super-sized, puzzle-box epics that have become irresistible box office draws. Surely, people will come masked and in droves, ready to dissect it as furiously as they did with Inception or Interstellar?
And there’s Nolan himself, the purist who made a dogged last stand against the digital release model. Tenet will be seen in cinemas, he declared, or it will not be seen at all. It’s a shame that the narrative around its release will inevitably cloud any real discussion of the film’s merits. Tenet is as intricately and exquisitely designed as Nolan’s earlier work. It boasts some of the most spectacular, memorable set-pieces of his career.
Ostensibly an espionage thriller, it opens on a nameless figure (BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington), whose commitment to his work sees him recruited by a mystery organisation, then sent off into the world with a single palindrome: “Tenet”. This word will “open the right doors and some of the wrong ones, too”. He crosses paths with allies (Robert Pattinson’s Neil, and Michael Caine in a brief cameo) and foes (Kenneth Branagh’s Andrei Sator, with a Russian accent as thick as borscht).
He stumbles into a great, yawning chasm of possibility and probability – namely, the discovery that objects can travel forwards and backwards through time, carving out wide channels in the fabric of reality. It’s a time travel film. But, also, as the director himself insists, not a time travel film. It’s the most complex of Nolan’s contraptions. It can be frightening. It can be claustrophobic. At times, it verges on the incomprehensible. We expect the complex and byzantine from Nolan’s work. But here, with an idea he’s wrestled with for over a decade, the director’s managed to reach new heights of obfuscation.
Nolan seems to almost revel in the futility of words here. The central conceit – that it’s possible to reverse an object’s passage through time – is easy to follow. But the director makes the smaller details deliberately hard to track, with the dialogue often delivered in whispers or from behind masks. It’s been seemingly engineered for multiple viewings.
Does it matter all that much, though? Tenet is a thrilling place to get lost in. “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” explains Laura (Clémence Poésy), who serves as one of the film’s exposition machines. The advice is directed as much to us as it is to the film’s hero. But while the appeal of Nolan’s films usually comes from watching all the pieces fall neatly into place, the final picture bringing a sense of order to existence, the director has found himself increasingly drawn towards chaos.
The sturdy, logical dream levels of Inception have been replaced by the bombs of Dunkirk. They whizz past, without a target or a specific purpose, guided by an invisible hand. The film sends waves of helplessness crashing over its audience. Tenet, too, has much to do with the terror of the unseen and the unknowable. Threats emerge from hidden sources, their tendrils reaching out and slowly wrapping themselves around the Earth’s circumference.
In the place of words, atmosphere thrives. Tenet is ruled by a deep, perfidious sense of tension. It’s the rare action film where the characters don’t just say the world will end if they fail in their mission – you feel it, too. Ludwig Göransson (stepping into the shoes of Nolan’s usual collaborator, Hans Zimmer) creates a score built of low, anxious vibrations that pulsate through even the most incidental of scenes. Most of the colours we see are familiar to Nolan’s worlds – yellow tones make everything feel like it’s been lightly coated in toxic smog – though one particular, showstopping scene is bathed in hellish reds and blues. The action scenes, all carefully shaped around the idea of “inverted time”, are coordinated to look like some kind of strange, modernist ballet.
There’s something alluring about the way the surreal rubs shoulders with the usual trappings of the spy genre: the exotic locations, chilly British dames (The Night Manager’s Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, wife of Sator), and brash hero. Washington’s charisma is undeniable – an ideal combination of likeability and cool reserve, which the rising star delivers with Bond-like flair – though his quips can be a little predictable. “Where I’m from, you buy me dinner first,” he says to a security guard, post-pat-down. Nolan at least seems aware that the character suffers from a certain two-dimensionality. The credits simply call him “The Protagonist”.
A little harder to forgive is his script’s depiction of Kat. Nolan may have moved on from his obsession with dead wives, who haunt the edges of his frames, but his female lead is here still defined by the male figures in her life – the son she’s been separated from and the husband who holds power over her. But while Nolan finds almost nothing to say about motherhood, there’s something genuinely unnerving about Sator’s firecracker nature. Branagh is unexpectedly fearsome in the role. His violence is unpredictable, his nihilism a menace.
Nolan prides himself on these bold choices. He’s here to shake foundations. But no film could ever save the theatrical experience single-handed from the jaws of a never-ending pandemic and a cataclysmic recession. When we look back on 2020, we won’t remember what Tenet did for the film industry. We’ll remember the governments that failed their people, their economies, and the arts. Tenet is no saviour. It is, and will always be, a victim of circumstance.
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