**** (4 stars)
Cloud Atlas tells the story of people who meet again and again throughout eternity. The situations in which they meet are always different, but their feelings for one another are always the same. I have never read the book but I had heard what it was about and when I heard it was to be directed, I wasn’t sure how it would translate from page to screen. In the case of the film, the same actors (an impressive cast with the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw to name but a few) are used in each story thread, changing sex and appearance with the use of heavy prosthetics. In each story, a different actor takes on the role of the protagonist, but they come into contact with characters that they have met before or are connected to in the future.
With so many different story-threads, some will undoubtedly be better than others; the story in which Jim Broadbent plays a publicist thrust into a care-home by his brother is truly ridiculous and I inwardly groaned every time the film returned to it. The whole point of it seemed to rest on the fact that you got to see Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw in drag – excellent prosthetics, no doubt, but not enough to rest a story on. This plot also jars tonally with the rest of the film as it tries to insert comedy into what is a deeply philosophical exploration of human life. It also makes for uncomfortable viewing with regards to the treatment of the elderly in care, and was a story that could well have been removed from the film to make time for the more interesting narrative threads.
One of the main annoyances of the film came from the desire to see more from some of the stories being told. Indeed, at least three of the stories could have been developed into whole films in themselves – the Adam Ewing story (played excellently by Jim Sturgess), the story of the composition of the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’, and also the narrative about the dystopian future with Sonmi-451. All of these three were excellent; I felt that all these stories had something more to give and that each could have made engaging feature-length productions. Each raised interesting ethical questions and featured some of the best acting of the film. The Ben Whishaw/James D’Arcy relationship was brilliant, and I just wanted more about the characters and their lives. Ben Whishaw is truly one of the best actors of his generation and his understated performance in this story as the gay composer will probably be one of the performances of the year for me. The other stand-out relationship was that between Somni-451 and Hae-Joo Chang – if you are not inwardly screaming ‘Kiss!’ whenever they appear on screen then something is wrong with you.
The story from the far future, with Tom Hanks as a goat-herder, is problematic. Society has broken down, and therefore language has too so the characters talk to each other in a mix of broken English and warped phrases, which makes it hard to understand. In the opening scene, Tom Hanks is obviously trying to tell us a profound story but the huskiness of his voice and the broken English make it hard to understand. I’m pretty sure I missed some of the key ideas of the film because of this. Another distraction comes in the form of Hugh Grant: first, that he no longer looks like Charles from Four Weddings and a Funeral; and secondly in the fact that he does appear capable of acting in something other than a rom-com. Similarly, the use of Hugo Weaving as a hit man cannot help but reawaken the memory of him as Agent Smith in The Matrix, but he plays the role well.
Although the film is far too bloated and some of the stories didn’t connect with me as others did, I still enjoyed it because the good bits are really good. The good parts outweigh the weaker ones, which is why I have leant towards a higher star rating. At times, it feels as though the spiritual message is being spoon-fed to you, but this is forgivable as I’m not sure how it would have translated from page to screen without some guidance. Recognition needs to go to the excellent prosthetics, and the graphics department – it cannot be doubted that the film was visually spectacular. And Hugo Weaving, much like Jeremy Irons, will always play an excellent bad guy.