Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

By Edwin Davies

October 31, 2012

No, I will not call you Patch.

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However, this is clearly meant as provocation, and as such is built into the thematic and emotional core of the film. Sure, Hugo Weaving playing a woman is odd here (as opposed to seeing him in drag in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, where it is hilarious), and the least said about Hanks' brief - though not brief enough - turn as an Irish thug the better, but there's something kind of beautiful (not to mention incredibly nutty) about the commitment that the film-makers and actors bring to the "deep down, we're all the same" idea at the centre of such a conceit. By deliberately drawing attention to questions of race, the film actually renders such distinctions meaningless in pursuit of a higher truth.

At its heart, Cloud Atlas is about the idea that people live on through their deeds and actions. The film uses the notion of reincarnation to examine this - the protagonist in each story is marked by a similar comet-like birthmark or scar and each of them is beset by villains who may also be reincarnations of a different soul - but the spiritual idea, the idea that people live many lives and that they meet the same people time and again, is less important than the idea that what the characters do is what really counts: The kindness of a lawyer inspires a young composer (Ben Whishaw) whose music touches a journalist (Halle Berry) and so on, eventually leading to great sweeping changes long after the original character is dead.


Each individual story in Cloud Atlas is straightforward, even simplistic, but taken together they offer a much more complicated mosaic of life and the need for people to fight injustice wherever it might be found. This can be big and earth-shattering, such as the battle that Sonmi-451 wages against her creators, or small and personal, as in the case of Timothy Cavendish's (Jim Broadbent) efforts to escape from a retirement community, but in each instance what matters is the fight itself, regardless of the end result. It's a simple message that echoes throughout each story, but repetition makes it no less potent. In fact, with each repetition it grows in volume and power until it reaches a crescendo in the final act(s).

Cloud Atlas's reach frequently exceeds its grasp. In dispensing with the more rigid structure of the book, The Wachowskis and Tykwer's more free-flowing approach at times feels clunky and uneven - particularly during its opening 45 minutes as it introduces every timeline and character - and it occasionally struggles to make its trans-chronological connections have the impact that they need. Yet the moments when they hit are spellbinding, and the film remains a singular and ambitious work with a powerful, necessary message. It's undoubtedly flawed, but wonderfully and fascinatingly so. It is guaranteed to divide people into passionate defenders and ardent detractors: I, for one, am happy to count myself among the former.

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