Never mind the quality, feel the length
Cloud Atlas is an archetypal novel to screen transfer; the kind that plunges the cinephile into a deep depression. Why? Well, because we know that once it’s over we’ll have to endure a bunch of highfaluting biblio-bores vomit up old clichés about how the film is, by design, never as good as the book. It needn’t have been this way: Mitchell’s pyrotechnics in prose surely had their equivalent in screen style, but what was ornate on the page becomes doggerel in translation, such are the perils of entrusting a work of art to a triumvirate of technicians.
Three directors, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, have made a series of baffling decisions, which combined privilege the novel’s whimsicality and fortune cookie philosophy without alluding to the craft that made it such a pleasurable read. We’re minded to think that the structuring gimmick of Mitchell’s cross-genre odyssey, a series of interlinked stories that assume a metatextual character as each is referenced in the next, was the bait that caught these sprats. However Mitchell gave his novel a pleasing shape, he made it symmetrical, book ending his middle tale with one half of five others. Each had time to bed in, and each, in the novel’s first half, advanced to a memorable cliff hanger that lodged in the reader’s mind, allowing them to pick up the tale and enjoy the conclusion in the second.
Cloud Atlas the movie junks that structure, perhaps assuming that cinema audiences, long thought to lack the humble reader’s concentration span, would be confused by a movie told in 15 minute segments. Instead, each story is thrown into the mix from the outset and advanced in short sharp increments; the hapless trio underlining the novel’s recurring motifs and character connections in what they imagine to be a more digestible format.
You’re reminded of the technique adopted by Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia, that start stop, marginally meandering approach, that in his hands felt assured, the mark of a director in command of the material, but here feels imposed, breaking two part stories into tens of intercut fragments. Given the movie’s punishing length, 172 minutes, this retooling of Mitchell’s sextet looks like vandalism; the re-punctuation of perfect prose. Stretched across the entire running time, bored audience members returning to The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing may well forget who was doing what and why, and who’s had the space to get to know these characters anyway? You have to remain in someone’s company for more than a minute here and there to get any purchase on them.
If the linear intercutting warps the novel’s perfect shape, the decision to spell out the connections between the characters populating each era’s story by having the cast perform multiple roles, turns it into a three hour pantomime. Bad technique depreciates the material, making it broad and ridiculous. The makeup is conspicuous and poorly lit; in many scenes the players look absurd. While you’re open mouthed at the production’s ill-fated attempts at turning Hugo Weaving into a middle aged woman or Hugh Grant into a wizened pensioner, you’re no longer an active participant in the on screen action.
It’s hard to suspend your disbelief and care about this troupe, in whatever guise, when the work employed in altering their age, sex and race gives them an uncanny aspect. We’re supposed to be fascinated by these individuals but not because they look like they’ve had poor reconstructive surgery. One wonders if it was Larry Wachowski’s sex change, rather than a considered view of the material, that informed the desire to cast the movie this way. If so, this may be the world’s first motion picture informed by full body dysmorphia.
The movie’s problems don’t end there. The multiplicity of roles puts a strain on the ensemble, making it a more successful experiment for some than others. Amongst the losers, Tom Hanks, miscast for the most part, in roles that require an actor with chameleon-like qualities. If he’s lifeless as a post-apocalyptic warrior, he’s ludicrous as a sweary Irish pugilist and worse as a Scottish hotelier. Accents and Hanks don’t mix and it doesn’t help that all the while he looks like what he is; a jester with rubber caked on his face.
Astonishingly there’s an in-movie admission that the talismanic lead may have been poorly chosen. In An Orison of Sonmi~451, Hanks stars as the movie version of Jim Broadbent’s Timothy Cavendish. The pompous publisher imagines he’ll be played by an actor of great versatility – “one part Lawrence Olivier to, er, one part Michael Caine” – yet here’s Hanks, hamming it up for this film within the film. The irony, lost on the Wachowskis but surely not on their audience, is that the tone of Hanks’ performance in this scene is indistinguishable from his other guises. This movie did indeed require versatility and heft as Broadbent implies, but with the notable exception of Ben Wilshaw, casting invitations went to the wrong addresses.
David Mitchell’s book garnered plaudits, not just for its novel technique but the imaginative way it linked genres and charted the evolution, and predicted devolution, of language over time. It was a novel as much about writing as it was interconnectivity, but the polish from prose and the mystique it created has no equal in this movie adaptation. Despite having three directors, the style is uniform and lifeless; what was clear, thanks to the book’s carefully designed chronology, is opaque and insubstantial on screen. In short, it’s a botched job: a work misunderstood and mishandled.