David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
Sylvia is based on notes released five years ago by the writer's husband British poet Ted Hughes after 30 years of silence (Hughes died of cancer in 1998). They chronicle Sylvia's painful battle with depression frustration over her writing career and jealousy of husband Ted's accomplishments and suspected infidelities. The movie takes up Sylvia's life in 1955 two years after she first attempted suicide; now a seemingly recovered Cambridge student and Fulbright scholar her well-bred all-American beauty and deep intellect attract the notice of aspiring poet Ted Hughes. The two begin a fervent obsessive relationship getting married and having two children while struggling with money and advancing their respective careers. The higher Ted's star rises in the publishing industry however the harder it is for Sylvia to find her voice--losing herself in the shadow of his success she grows increasingly bitter and neurotic about her failures as well as the affairs she believed handsome Ted to be having. Reality or self-fulfilling prophecy? Hard to say but in 1962 Sylvia discovers Ted having a very real affair with their mutual friend so she moves to an apartment in London with the kids. In this tiny flat during one of the coldest winters on record Sylvia Plath begins a frenzied writing period and produces the work that will finally secure her place in the annals of famous women writers: the novel The Bell Jar and the poem Ariel among others. Unfortunately it is in this flat too that Sylvia Plath takes her own life six months later.
In the eponymous role Gwyneth Paltrow (who startlingly resembles Plath) demonstrates a profound empathy with and understanding of the writer who if you're to believe this movie didn't fully understand herself. Essaying a real-life brilliant proto-feminist poet who happens also to be near catatonically depressed is no easy feat but Paltrow takes a deep breath and dives right in delivering an Oscar-caliber performance that may be her best to date. Watch as she almost gaily describes her suicide attempts to an alarmed Ted as their rowboat is being dangerously pulled out to sea or her bizarre and discomfiting reaction during a dinner party as she imagines Ted's lust for another woman at the table. Sylvia seems normal on the outside but Paltrow gives us the barest hint of the demons lurking beneath her polished erudite exterior. As womanizing Ted Hughes a suitably arrogant (and indeed attractive--someone call MGM here's your next Bond) Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) does what he can in a role limited mostly to reacting to Sylvia's idiosyncrasies until she drives him into another woman's arms; you do though get a sense that he loved her deeply and tolerated as much as he could.
Good as Paltrow is she's limited by director Christine Jeffs' (director of the New Zealand indie Rain) one-dimensional characterization of Sylvia that the writer's legacy of multilayered work belies. The love story takes a front seat to Sylvia's writing career and opinions on gender differences and family reducing Sylvia to a weepy morose soul whose overriding concern is where her husband is at all hours. While the beginning of the film gives you some hints as to Sylvia's mental state that plotline falls by the wayside except in terms of the effect her depression had on her feelings about Ted. Despite recurring scenes of her tortured writing there is scarce mention of Sylvia's work (her most well-known The Bell Jar gets fleeting reference) and regrettably very few lines of it are ever heard. By the end Jeffs seems to be veering toward the feminist opinion that Ted and his philandering created the mental state that drove Sylvia to kill herself. The director does a wonderful job though of setting the time and place with dreary grainy shots of rain-soaked 1960s England and a dead-on period look.