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.
It's 1945 and Grace's husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston) went off to fight in World War II and never came back. She is therefore left alone to raise her two children Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley) in a cavernous Victorian mansion engulfed in gloom and fog on the Isle of Jersey. Following the German Occupation the family learned to live without electricity which worked to their advantage since the youngsters suffer a rare allergy to light and cannot be exposed to any light brighter than a candle. The three new servants Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and Lydia (Elaine Cassidy) are carefully briefed by Grace about the importance of closing and locking every door in the house. The light she explains must be locked out like water from room to room. The religiously repressed Grace is also prone to migraine attacks and insists the house must be kept in absolute silence at all times. When Anne begins to complain that she see ghosts in the house Grace tells the servants "My children sometimes have strange ideas but you mustn't listen to them. Children will be children." Eventually however she begins to believe that perhaps there are others living amongst them in the house.
Kidman plays the part of Grace with the perfect amount of fear and intensity that her character needs to make the film both chilling and suspenseful. Though Grace tries to put on a strong face for her children you can always sense her underlying concern and anxiety. Her hands constantly fidget and her eyes always follow the creaking ceilings or the mysteriously opening doors. Kidman does a magnificent job making sure her character never looks at peace with herself and is constantly perturbed. Even when Grace is sitting with her needlepoint and sipping tea she looks fearful and agitated. Mann and Bentley who play the two children also deliver intense performances. They are not smart alecks but they are clever. When Anne tells her confused and bewildered mother "Are you mad? I am your daughter!" it will leave your hair standing on the back of your neck. The three servants are eerie especially Cassidy's character Lydia who is mute. Always wide-eyed she looks genuinely shocked and perpetually scared. The cast's ability to portray terror and panic authentically is what makes this film successfully creepy and terrifying.
The story opens with Grace reading a lesson by candlelight to her children and the film never gets much brighter than that. Because the mansion has no electricity and the curtains are always drawn the lighting is always somber and dusky adding to the film's cold and gloomy feel. The outdoor scenes are bathed in a thick icy fog that can be seen in the rooms where light is allowed to seep in. The costumes and hairstyles combined with the lighting and settings give this film a 1950s feel. Director Alejandro Amenábar delivers a bone-chilling horror picture with a suspenseful story that builds slowly but keeps your interest and never lets go. The Others is that rare film which scares without blood and gore relying instead on intelligent story telling and never ending tension. The plot has enough diversions to keep you guessing its premise until the very end when viewers will be rewarded with a clever twist.