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?
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.
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