Monday, 4 March 2013

Hullo Clouds, Hullo Sky

We went to see that Cloud Atlas film last weekend, because we were both at a loose end and we’d both read the book so it seemed like a good idea.

I got a dirty, dirty mouth.
And a twenty-dollar wig.
When the BBFC certificate came up at the beginning, it warned that there was to be some ‘strong language (one very strong)’ so we decided to keep a watch out for that and point it out when we spotted it (it turned out to be Tom Hanks saying ‘cunt’ which doesn’t strike me as being particularly strong in a film made for grown-ups, but I have been informed that ladies tend to see it as the Swear Of Last Resort so I shall bow to their sensibilities while also pondering why it is that gentlemen have no equal antipathy to, I don’t know, ‘cock’ or ‘prick’ or ‘spamdagger’[1]).

The film does what films often do, which is to change the narrative structure of its source material in order to make it more suitable for the visual medium. In this case, the Russian Doll-like structure of the book has had the back of an axe taken to it, smashing it into tiny shards of narrative and strewing them all over. Which actually works, as this new structure means the viewer has to pay attention to which story strand is being focussed on at any given moment, rather than having the luxury of a fifteen to twenty minute section to get bored with. Events are moved around – one event in particular moves from the end of its original section in the book to the beginning of the film’s, and in doing so changes the entire texture of the sequences.

It is, in essence, a portmanteau film of the sort that were made back in the sixties and seventies, the kind of film where rather posh people on a train journey told each other rather interesting stories then found out they were all rather dead. If it is, it’s a portmanteau film as made by William Burroughs – cut up and slapped down again almost at random, but still retaining some form of shape.

There are a number of other liberties taken with the story tone; in the book, the Orison of Sonmi-451 sections read in a quiet, almost stately manner, whereas in the film they’re treated as Great Big Loud Science Fiction, with chases through the air and bright colours and you almost expect Kate Beckinsale to pop up. Jim Broadbent’s main section, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, by contrast, plays and looks very much like a 1970s Britcom movie, out of keeping with the book’s more restrained, genteel comedy.

And of course there’s the make-up. This has been mentioned in other places and it’s being mentioned here because it’s the weakest aspect of the film. The concept of having the same main players taking different roles is a good one; it underlines the theme of the book and puts it right up there on screen for even the dumbest viewer to see.

Love actually is all around
It’s further spotlit by the lingering close-ups of the comet-shaped birthmark that recurs throughout the different time periods shown, but the actors are the main vehicle for the idea. Unfortunately, the make-up doesn’t always work. The aging makeup in particular is awful – you wonder why Hugh Grant is hiding under a late period Jimmy Savile mask – but in general you spend just a little too long noticing the make-up rather than the actor, and a little too long noticing the actor under the make-up in an “oh, it’s him again!’ way, that you’re jolted out of the film. Sometimes, though, the disguise works – when Halle Berry turns up disguised as a middle-class white woman, I actually thought it was Madonna up there on screen, and that was as big a jolt as seeing Hugo Weaving in drag.
What? This isn't W.E.?

Now you may have got the idea that I didn’t like this film. And you’d be wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not in a so-bad-it’s-good way, as I find bad films to be simply that: bad films, with no redemption to be had. Cloud Atlas is not a bad film. It’s really a pretty good film of a near-unfilmable novel. I’d read reviews that said it had an unnecessary third hour, and I sat there wondering when that third hour would appear, expecting the weight-shifting and bladder-straining that goes with an overlong film. They didn’t come. The film held me, never less than interested if not always entranced, for its full length, and I couldn’t say that about most films I see.

I suspect that time will be good to Cloud Atlas, that it will get good word-of-mouth (I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s seen it and didn’t enthuse about it, and that includes an acquaintance in the film industry who can usually be relied on to badmouth anything. And anybody. I like the fella.) and be watched repeatedly, either at the cinema or on DVD. I’m going to see it again in two days, something I haven’t done since I accidentally agreed to see Snakes On A Plane with two different people on consecutive days and couldn’t in all conscience let either party down.

Go and see it. Read the book, either prior to or after the film. Agree or disagree, love or hate, Cloud Atlas is at least an attempt by a big studio to make something other than bangy shouty blowy-up films, laboured scatological comedy films or pale wan teenage monster films, and for that at least it deserves your time.

Coming Soon: The Marxist Dialectic in Wreck-It Ralph

[1] I know why. I. Know. Why. Please don’t gang up on me. 

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