Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.
(SPOILERS) Familiarity with source material can be a mixed blessing. It can provoke insights that enhance one’s appreciation of the adaptation. Alternatively, one can become distracted by the alterations made. I read David Mitchell’s novel some months before seeing Cloud Atlas, so it was quite fresh in my memory. As such, I found the film a dazzling but at times frustrating experience on first viewing. I wasn’t prepared for the restructuring or the divergent connections made by the directors. So I needed a second encounter to (more) fully immerse myself in it, as a separate entity in its own right. The film is an extraordinary piece of work, by no means perfect, but one where the achievements far outweigh any deficiencies.
Spanning five centuries, diverse characters and storylines are entwined by common themes. The first story, set in 1849, concerns an American lawyer slowly being poisoned by a crooked doctor in the South Pacific. This sequence is set against the slave trade of the period, and the theme of social Darwinism, one that informs much of the conflict found in the story strands, is announced here. The lawyer, Ewing, keeps a journal of his voyage, which is read in 1936 by a self-serving musician, Frobisher. Frobisher is working for a renowned composer while creating his own work, The Cloud Atlas Sextet. In 1973, the piece stirs recognition in Luisa Rey, a journalist investigating corruption and conspiracy at a nuclear power plant. In 2012, editor Timothy Cavendish is incarcerated in a nursing home and attempts to escape; he receives a manuscript from one Javier Gomez (as a boy, he is Luisa Rey’s neighbour in 1973). Sonmi-451, a fabricant (clone) in Korea of 2144, working at a McDonalds-esque Papa Song’s restaurant, is released from servitude by a rebel leader. She finds inspiration in the protests of a film version of Timothy Cavendish’s ordeal (“I will not be subjected to criminal abuse”). Finally, in a post-apocalyptic 2321, Somni is worshipped as a goddess by a primitive tribe. One of their number, Zachry, agrees to lead a visiting, technologically advanced Prescient (Meronym) into the mountains to locate a satellite station.
Mitchell commented that the main theme of his novel is predacity, “individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations” and we see the scope of this reflected in the six stories of the film also. But, while the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer carry the theme of power dynamics, far more redolent is, as Robert Frobisher puts it, the idea that “separation is an illusion”. The eternal recurrence they embrace goes significantly further than the slightly coy themes of reincarnation to which Mitchell alludes. He has stated that he does not believe in reincarnation, so for him the recurrent birthmark becomes purely symbolic, suggesting the “universality of human nature”.
The Wachowskis/Tykwer play out Mitchell’s stories with a tender embrace; they entertain a decidedly more optimistic take on the themes of the novel. I enjoyed the book, but I found the author’s stylistic effusions self-consciously showy and off-putting at times; it was not the revelatory tome that some have proclaimed. The directors approach the storytelling thematically, crosscutting tales to create bridges between characters and events, discarding Mitchell's rigid (and simple, but inspired) "Russian doll” structure.
Because I was so familiar with the novel, on first viewing I found the transitions only variably effective. At times (usually aided by voiceover) they absolutely brought across the universality of experience, of repetitions, reflections and refractions. But at others the chain seemed slightly fragmented, the flow disrupted. I reached the conclusion that it might have been more effective to pursue a more dreamlike, symbolic approach; of the sort seen in Nicolas Roeg’s films, rather attempting to map such clear paths. Many of these concerns were addressed on second viewing. The successes seemed much clearer and the missteps were much less pronounced. To be honest, the five-minute trailer for the film still attains a perfection the full feature lacks; it distills the essence in a stirring marriage of sound and visuals (despite the toilet plunger). All the connections are in that trailer, but expanded upon over the course of three hours by the feature (minus M83).
But, as redressed balances go, the most significant change from the novel, and the one that was initially distracting rather than engrossing, is the decision to identify reincarnated souls by reusing actors in different sequences. At time this appeared to be arbitrary and incoherent. I wouldn’t now suggest incoherence, but there’s still some claim to it being slightly arbitrary when a familiar but prosthetics-endowed face pops up for just twenty seconds.
It’s clear that the directors specifically intend for the multiple roles to reflect continuance of theme and soul’s journey. This is a divergence from Mitchell, who identifies the comet birthmark as a link between the incarnations of his main protagonists; there is a line from Ewing to Frobisher to Rey to Cavendish to Somni to Meronym. In the film, it is employed as an identifier of “artistic production”; each character whose work will directly interlink the tales and inspire another in the future. Examples include Frobisher's sextet heard by Reys, the film of Cavendish's life watched by Somni, and Somni’s veneration as a god by Zachry. And then there is Zachry, who bears the birthmark in the adaptation instead of Meronym, whose campfire tales bookend the film; he exemplifies oral tradition, how inspirational art began.
Apparently actors were asked how many roles they wished to play (Berry was initially told she would be playing two). This suggests that, rather than having a clear conception of how such and such playing one part links to their playing another part in another sequence, there was some degree of malleability in approach. (Although, in interviews the directors appear extremely erudite when discussing the intricate connections to be found in each and every choice.)
It’s perhaps less important to single out the detailed arcs than to go with the flow of universal themes of recurrence and synchronicity; certainly, I feel that I stumbled into the wrong mode of analysis initially. I assumed that some of their casting calls were random; I wouldn’t say that now, but it does seem as if an inspiration to put an actor in a brief snippet encourages readings that may be limited in scope.
And it may be that the nuts and bolts of the reincarnatory associations made by the directors do not always stand up to close scrutiny. For example, characters in the Rey and Cavendish (and possibly Frobisher) stories exist in the same time, so the links being drawn must be true thematically rather than literally. This is supported where actors are employed to represent an ongoing theme (Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving are consistently bastards). Grant starts off as a repressive reverend signing a slavery contract, pops up again as a corporate stooge, then the imprisoner of his brother, a slave master of the future, before his final, most regressed appearance as a far-future cannibal. Hugo Weaving is also consistently a force of darkness, extoling the merits of the “natural order” (of predacity), seen again as a hitman, a Nurse Ratchet-alike and finally as non-corporeal demon whispering in Zachry’s ear.
The flip of this is the positivity of Jim Sturgess’ Adam Ewing, who makes a stand against slavery and is ultimately seen leading a revolution as Hae-Joo. So too, Halle Berry’s Meronym is more-proactive incarnation of Luisa Rey. Others still lie somewhere in between, as Jim Broadbent’s Timothy Cavendish and Ben Wishaw’s Robert Frobisher work from essentially selfish and manipulative positions but nevertheless positively influence future generations. (But you wonder why David Gyasi’s Autua (so important to Ewing’s story) is only really notable in that one segment.)
Central to this is the path taken by Tom Hanks, from murderer Henry Goose to eventual hero, who overcomes his baser instincts to become a saviour of humankind. He is perhaps the most reflective of a “serious” take on reincarnation, a soul who makes halting progressions (as Isaac Sachs) only to stumble again (as Dermot Hoggins).
And the theme of the conquering power of love is most definitely one the Wachowskis and Tykwer consider integral, but an aspect Mitchell has scant regard for. Ultimately, this may be why I think the film far exceeds the novel in terms of depth and resonance (although aesthetic considerations play a part). The futuristic love story between Hae-Joo and Sonmi is touching and sincere. Although it ends in tragedy, the editing of the film leaves us in a position of hope as the same actors/souls are reunited in the past forms of Adam and Tilda Ewing. Mitchell’s novel deals the reader a savage blow as Hae-Joo is revealed to be part of a manufactured rebellion designed to make Sonmi a scapegoat for civil unrest.
This filmmakers’ kinder, hopeful disposition is repeated in the stories of Zachry (he and Meronym marry, so rewarding the fleeting recognition between Isaac and Luisa) and Cavendish (he ends up reuniting with childhood sweetheart Ursula). It’s the sort of decision(s) that would usually invite sentimentality, but the directors employ love as a means to make the film soar at key moments. The promise of progression, with humanity surviving to prosper out among the stars, is in contrast to the less inspirational conclusion to Zachry’s story in the novel.
Some of the tales suffer from the dictates of truncation through adaptation. Most notably, the cutting of Somni's Ascension loses one of the most compelling passages of the novel. The pulp intrigue of Luisa Rey’s story is also very much pared down. In contrast, Frobisher’s story loses surprisingly little through eliminating Vyvyan’s niece. Perhaps because it gains so much by actually showing Sixsmith. And Cavendish's ghastly ordeal is definitely improved. I found his the most tiresome section of the book; there remains a facile streak at the core of this sequence, but at least it offers its Cuckoo's Nest character redemption of sorts.
Mitchell's possible fictions are replaced by literal readings. In the book, characters are dubious about whether accounts are believable (the device of making Cavendish a publisher/editor foregrounds the author’s technique) and the stylistic choices appropriated by the author encourage distance on the part of the reader. The film only overtly invites such meta-commentary in the Timothy Cavendish movie that inspires Sonmi, and Cavendish’s opening narration concerning “flashbacks, flashforwards and all such tricksy gimmicks”. Occasionally the author’s position remains opaque (the conspiracy by big oil to make nuclear look bad would appear to be a pro-nuclear stance, but Zachry's post-apocalyptic world suggests otherwise) but in general the filmmakers know they have enough of a task in ensuring that the structure plays, quite aside from applying additional thematic obfuscation.
One of the big conversations regarding the film has been the prosthetics. Some criticisms focused on the make-up for Caucasian actors playing Asian characters in the Seoul sequence, sensitivity that is understandable. But, in context of the wider approach of the film (Asian actors playing white characters, a black actress playing a Jewish woman) it seems like a misplaced charge. Of greater pause is how distracting the prosthetics can be. At times they work very well (Berry’s Jocasta is a case in point), at others they look like something Inspector Clouseau might have bought from the costume shop. Susan Sarandon sporting a huge nose, so prodigious as to suggest someone playing a bad joke, Hugh Grant in a facial appliance doubling the size of his head as Denholme Cavendish, Doona Bae’s Tilda. Occasionally there’s a humourous aspect (both Weaving and Whishaw, dragged up as Nurse Noakes and Georgette respectively), but there’s a thin line between the wigs and latex adorning actors enabling them to be recognisable for thematic resonance and making them look plain silly. It didn’t mar my enjoyment overall, but occasionally the positives echoes of prior characters were engaged in losing a battle with being pulled out of the narrative.
For the most part, the performances won me over where the appliances failed. Hugh Grant impresses the most. There is no sign of his loveable fop, and his cannibal is particularly revelatory. Uncouth Deholme Cavendish may look daft, but as a comic creation he is superb. . Halle Berry's shitty stream of films finally ends as she justifies that Oscar; her multiple performances are intelligent and insightful. Tom Hanks gets to Forrest Gump it up (as Zachry) and repeat his Ladykillers mugging (as Henry Goose). His brief turn as Dermot Hoggins is probably most entertaining, though. Weaving’s chain of villainy is nothing he hasn’t done before, but he’s always good value. Old George seems to be visually referencing Baron Samedi. Doona Bae is wonderful as Somni, but less convincing as Tilda. Ben Wishaw, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon, Xun Zhou; all memorable in their various guises.
As noted, my impression of the flow and interweaving of the stories changed significantly and positively. The directors’ success comes as much through the use of dialogue to underline the same truths in multiple storylines as the repetitive stirring piano of the Cloud Atlas Sextet. The score is a thing of sublime beauty all by itself. Married with the imagery it is inspirational. But there are other, less immediate repetitions and parallels; the reuse of locations in different guises is one of the most surprising and effective.
Tom Tykwer directed the middle trio of 1936, 1973 and 2012 sequences, while Lana and Andy Wachowski helmed 1849 and the future visions of 2144 and 2321. You’d only guess who did what by their predilections; sci-fi is the siblings’ natural home, while the thriller genre has served Tykwer well in the past (Run Lola Run and The International).
Cloud Atlas is a gorgeous spectacle and a resonant meditation. If the weakest section of the book (Timothy Cavendish) is still the weakest of the film, it fails to impact upon the achievement of the whole. So too, the failings in the make-up arena can’t take away from the compelling performances. The directors have dared to reach for the stars with a sweeping, rich vision of humanity’s essential connectedness. And they have done so in an environment where there is very little appetite for saying anything new or different. It’s a shame the film has failed to connect with audiences (or, by and large, critics) but its reputation can only grow in the years to come.