January 17, 2013
More than two years have passed since I first read David Mitchell’s intricate nesting-doll novel Cloud Atlas. An article in the New Yorker profiling Mitchell caught my attention, especially when it summarized that particular book. While reading, I was captivated by its dizzying construction and its effective attempt to make sweeping statements about the nature of human connection through space and time via what are essentially six long vignettes. These half-dozen snapshots all had their own individual plots, characters, and settings, and were widely dispersed in time. Writing styles varied from broad comedy to sci-fi and post-apocalyptic to historical and pulpy. Yet the book maintains a sense of coherence and wholeness through a karmic cosmology where the actions of characters in previous times had consequences later. Kindness was repaid with kindness, hatred with hatred. That cosmology, with the help of a governing anti-institutional message, lent enough unity to these disparate stories to make me feel like I had still borrowed a novel from the library instead of an thematized short story collection.
The film adaptation, released in North America in October of last year, concerns itself with the same six stories. It does, however, discard some the structure of the book, which is likely for the best. The book begins with the earliest story and goes forward for the first half, with the first five stories ending halfway through. The sixth story is told straight through in the centre of the book, after which the other five are resolved in the last half in reverse chronological order, latest to earliest. To make the stories more palatable and to make the connections between the stories more explicit, the filmmakers (writers and directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer) chose to cut between them instead. While a more conventional filmic approach to multiple story threads, it helps to keep the film’s pacing consistent.
Now, to introduce the six stories in chronological order:
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing–the story of a lawyer on a voyage from the Pacific Islands to his home in San Francisco. It takes place in 1850.
Letters from Zedelghem–tells the tale of a struggling bisexual music composer who offers himself as an amanuensis (apprentice composer) to an aging member of a previous musical generation. It takes near Bruges, Belgium in 1931.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery–a pulp-fiction yarn about the travails of the titular journalist and her run-in with a sinister energy company and its hired guns. This takes place in 1975 in San Francisco.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish–the most broadly comic story of the bunch, it takes place in present day. Its events concern the unwilling incarceration of a debt-ridden British publisher in a nursing home.
An Orison of Sonmi-451–Leaping into the future, this story takes place in what was once Korea and is now called Nea So Copros, a totalitarian state that operates by exploiting genetically-engineered slave workers. In particular, it focuses on the part of the titular character, Sonmi-451, who escapes her servitude and joins a resistance force.
Finally, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After–this takes place “after The Fall,” which is implied to a be a world-ending nuclear conflict. In this future, those humans that still survive live a hard, primitive existence and are visited by Prescients, who are a remnant of the technologically-advanced civilization that has collapsed.
Phew! Any project that proposed to condense and adapt this material into a watchable film has a clear and daunting challenge ahead of it. At the end of the film, my overall impression was one of admiration. The film falls far short of perfection, but its successes more than measure up to its failures.
My primary concerns for this adaptation when I first heard of it (long ago, when I was still in heaven) were mechanical and basic. How would the editor survive his own ghastly ordeal cutting and pasting this jigsaw puzzle together? How would the directors manage to maintain a sense of pacing when the stories themselves all have their own distinct rhythms? The huge tonal gulf between different stories would also pose thorny difficulties. Finally, would I be able to invest myself in the struggles of the onscreen characters so that the real stakes of each story’s outcome would be clear and meaningful?
In all of these foundational matters, the film succeeds without any fatal stumbles. Unfortunately, the Academy has failed to recognize Cloud Atlas’ editors with even an honorary award. What holds this unwieldy collage of times and places together is a set of key writing, directing, and editorial decisions without which I doubt the film would have succeeded in being more than a noble failure. First, actors Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving (the true standout in the cast), Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and others have all been cast in multiple roles. Visual and thematic similarities between locations and times are highlighted through match-cuts and explicit references to the karmic nature of their universe. We are able to grasp the archetypes that persist throughout the film–the noble individual, the oppressive collective, the motifs of falling, escape through windows, and the power of narrative–because the subtlety of the books has minimized.
I lament the loss of this subtlety, but I recognize that this film probably could not have worked without paying that price.
It’s often noted in reviews that large, audacious films “fall short of perfection” or are “flawed gems.” What comes through in the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas resoundingly clearly is that all artistic projects are exercises in compromise, attempting to find a satisfying equillibrium between too short and too long, between too light and too serious, and between numerous other extremes. I’ve noted the compromise between subtlety and comprehension. These compromises manifest themselves most obviously, however, in how the actors perform their roles. Of our principle actors, not one–save perhaps Hugo Weaving–is able to quite pull off all of their performances seamlessly. Much of this can be attributed to cross-racial and cross-age casting. Aging someone through makeup is a delicate art, and there are some faces in this film that look more like putty cascades than human flesh. Distracting flaws do real damage to the sense of time and place in the film, and give us an uncomfortable peak into the sheer artificiality of this enterprise.
Tom Hanks has the largest chasm between best and worst performance. As the village chief of a tribe of survivors and protagonist of the Sloosha’s Crossin’ story, he is adept at portraying the inner conflict of the character even though much of that conflict is visually dramatized. As a bad-haired scientist in the Luisa Rey story, he manages well though not memorably. However, he gives a palpably embarrassing, cringeworthy, and thankfully brief performance in the 1930s story and a questionable one in Adam Ewing’s as a ship’s doctor treating the protagonist for a worm on the brain. This range is larger than the others’, but every actor in the film has highs and lows. Weaving has the highest highs despite the white, Australian male being cast as a woman in one plot, a Korean in another, and the devil in yet another. His versatility is astonishing, and he is able to elicit a wide range of emotional reactions from laughter to spine-tingling menace. Halle Berry has few real lows but comes off as somewhat bland, and the rest of the cast varies in levels of excellence from the good Whishaw and (in one role ) Grant to the unmemorable Sarandon.
Watching the film is only very rarely disorienting or a chore, and what is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is its creation of such distinct worlds while holding its emotional resonance together at nearly all times. The tragic moments largely hit their marks, the triumphs are uplifting, and the comedy is shockingly well-timed and executed. For such a colossal undertaking that touches on these Big Ideas to transcend cold dissection and register emotionally is a great achievement.
What I would say is that this is the best Cloud Atlas adaptation I could have reasonably expected. It fails where it couldn’t help but fail and in few other places besides, and mostly succeeds where it needs to. I’m not sure how it would stand up to microscopic dissection, but since I did not experience the film that way, and I doubt that it is asking to be parsed that way, that holds little relevance for my opinion. It rides a razor’s edge between success and failure, but I was ultimately endeared to it and hope to wrestle with its implications for some time after seeing it.