“Cloud Atlas”… Sixes and sevens

What might it be like to cross the Niagara on an oil-slicked tightrope, on a unicycle, blindfolded, with hands tied behind the back? You need look no further than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is surely one of the most dazzling literary stunts of this millennium. Six stories, seemingly unrelated, set in different time periods, from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, setting the reader adrift on a raft of linguistic forms, ranging from journal jottings to epistolary confessions to a dispassionate interview – the novel is at once a lighthearted tease and a formal mind-bender. And the mind is bent a bit more when we realise that these stories are linked (as are the people within them), and that each narrative sneaks into succeeding ones – sometimes in a radically different form, as a manuscript submitted to a publisher, or a film even. How could anyone fashion a screenplay that functions both as the intricate puzzle Mitchell intended, mimicking movie genres the way the book cannibalised literary genres, as well a model of narrative clarity that sells a $100-million production to worldwide audiences unfamiliar with the book?

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The directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer do something entirely unexpected. Instead of streamlining the prose into chunks of easily digestible narrative, the way difficult books are often watered down in the movies, they chop it up further. Mitchell let each of his stories simmer for a while before serving up the next one, but the Wachowskis and Tykwer stir back and forth, simultaneously, tossing all six stories into one big pot – and for a while, it’s as if they tore up the book and switched on the fan and went about writing the screenplay from whichever page their eyes landed on as they crawled across the room. And then we see what they have done, which is to group together common points of build-up, tension and resolution. A caregiver in the 1970s says to a newly admitted inmate, “This way;” and we cut to a door opening in a futuristic Seoul. Where Mitchell’s writing consisted of stubbornly discrete segments that start and stop, dispensing lofty themes along the way, the directors of Cloud Atlas have made a movie that seethes and churns as a blandly homogenous entity. It doesn’t work as well as you hope (and how could it, with this clash of tones and tongues?), but you’re left goggle-eyed that they even tried.

In the 19th century, the seafaring Adam Ewing writes a journal. Some eighty years later, the bisexual Robert Frobisher finds employment as amanuensis to a cantankerous composer. In the 1970s, the journalist Luisa Ray investigates a power plant that’s possibly an environmental disaster. Later, a British publisher named Timothy Cavendish finds himself imprisoned in a home for the aged. Sometime in the future, a clone revolts against the system. And finally, after “the Fall,” when man has regressed to a primal state, Zachry is visited by a superior being who may be his salvation. In another film, you may resist knowing these details, waiting for awareness to dawn gradually. Here, you will likely be lost without a cheat sheet. Some of the transitions are beautiful, like the one where Frobisher reads out one of his letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith, and the room containing the former gradually vanishes to accommodate the latter, many decades later, holding the letter in his hand. At least on a technical level, the film is some kind of triumph.

But as a story that commands our emotions, alas, Cloud Atlas has to count as a misfire. The problem lies with the casting – a stunt on top of a stunt, with actors like Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw and Halle Berry playing multiple roles with distracting prosthetic applications. Their accents, sometimes rendered incomprehensible, are even more distracting. Poor Hugo Weaving suffers the most in his appearance as a dystopian devil, in top hat and a feathered tail coat and mottled green skin – he looks like the abandoned offspring of a ringmaster and a moulting parrot. Hugh Grant comes a close second, as some sort of bloodthirsty Orc. How can we sit through this casting seriously? And how could the directors have made this nearly three-hour movie work? By being less faithful, perhaps. Had they halved the novel, picking just three stories, each one may have made a more legitimate bid for our attentions. Instead, we’re left with a curious epic – so many people, and so little personality.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

17 thoughts on ““Cloud Atlas”… Sixes and sevens

  1. And the oft repeated question arises – do you evaluate a book movie really? do you see it independently as a film, or in context of the expectations you have from the book ? The latter is almost always bound to end in disappointment.

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  2. Reading through your review and a number of other reviews of the film, it appears that this is a project that could never have worked. If they had dropped sections of the book, they would have been criticized for being unfaithful to the story…small wonder then that book has always been considered unfilmable. Whoever financed this movie surely knew they were not going to get their money back. If this had been made by a European studio with a non-Hollywood cast, then at least they would have made the film for half the cost and would have at least been able to break even.

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  3. Njoy: I’ve spoken about this before. There is no *one* way to review films from books. You can either speak of the film alone or speak of the film in relation to the book. I’ve chosen the latter approach, as it interested me to see the translation. I’m sure there are reviews out there that take the former approach.

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  4. Agree that this shouldn’t have been a standalone. A trilogy maybe. And it still would have taken some screenwriting wizardry.

    As an aside, a recent Google doodle led me to the Wikipedia pages on Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann. Strangely, they put me in mind of Letters From Zedelghem – my favourite part of the sextet.

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  5. B, glad to see you wax lyrical about Cloud Atlas the novel. Easily one of the most mesmerising reads I’ve had in the last 5 years and about as dazzling an example of brilliant literary ventriloquism as you’re likely to find anywhere although Mitchell does draw significant inspiration from Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller.

    Telling all 6 stories concurrently was probably the best way to go, the novel’s “nested doll” approach to it’s tales most likely requiring at least 3 or 4 films to do it justice, but am curious as to why they decided on the theme of interconnecting lives as opposed to the novel’s far more intriguing concept of interconnecting themes (abuse of power, oppression etc).

    But given that that was the approach they were planning to take, Ye Gods! why on earth recruit severely limited actors like Hanks and Berry to essay the multiple roles when the likes of Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain or Cate Blanchett could have aced them in their sleep?

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  6. Sir in your book conversations with mani ratnam there was a error in page 289. Like Unaru a malayalam film baging karnataka state award. Do check it sir.

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  7. Excellent review. How many times did you watch this before you wrote this review? And generally, how many times do you watch a film before you’re ready to review? I always feel compelled to watch every film at least twice. And for a film like this, it’s very hard to form my verdict after a single viewing. Plus, it gives you so much to think about. I just don’t know how you churn out so much so soon without any compromise on quality.

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  8. Rohit Ramachandran: Given the number of movies I watch, do you think it’s possible to see anything more than once? :-) But that’s why I say that my “review” is a summation of my thoughts/feelings after a one-time watch, and not some till-the-end-of-time estimation.

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  9. But don’t you believe every movie deserves a fair shot? I mean months of work go into a film, don’t you believe it deserves a few extra hours of your time before you deliver your final verdict? I couldn’t review TDKR until three complete viewings. Even when I used to review Tamil movies I remember watching some of them twice, even some crappy ones like Yudham Sei and Mankatha. I find it easier to dismiss a film after multiple viewings, same with strongly standing by a film. Look, I’m not questioning your method and I understand that there are deadlines (a factor I can’t tolerate) but this is something that decreases my review generating efficiency and I want to know if you think this is a valid issue, or not.

    Btw, I have an interpretation of Cloud Atlas on my blog. Do have a look at it.

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  10. Rohit Ramachandran: I guess we approach reviews different ways. You seek to arrive at a “final verdict” (as you put it) on a film, whereas I’m okay with writing my review based on what I felt during the first viewing, with the (implicit) caveat that if and when I see the movie a second (or third or tenth) time, I may not come away with the same feelings. In other words, my pieces are just “thoughts” and not “final verdicts.”

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  11. “In other words, my pieces are just “thoughts” and not “final verdicts.””

    It would be interesting then to read about how the final verdict changed from that initial thought for at least some of the films you watched and the thought processes behind them. Ebert sometimes revisits movies and keeps correcting his initial views. Like say, after getting some grey hair, if you happened to give Mozhi another shot and happened to like the darn thing a bit more, we would like to hear about it :-) I also believe that age sometimes mellows the critic somewhat.(not suggesting that you have become an old fart)

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  12. Hmm but I’m sure a great majority of your readers are binary thinkers who see film and read reviews in a black-and-white fashion. Is the film good? Is it bad? Is it worth the price of my ticket? Or not? I completely understand and agree that looking at it the way you do is a good way of being able to accept any possibility of human error (if that’s what you can call it) but for a big critic like you who writes for a popular widespread paper, there’s clearly an influence on box office isn’t there? Not as much as there should be, but to quite an extent? Anyway, I guess that’s not your problem. And there’s only so much we can do.

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