Time flies, in all directions, in Cloud Atlas. Putting movie wings on David Mitchell’s Booker-nominated jumbo novel, which told six connected stories set across 500 years, Andy and Lana Wachowski (of The Matrix) team with Germany’s Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume) to create a film that gives you altitude and speed sickness, in regular doses, during its close-on-three-hour running time.
Fun even so? Definitely. Mitchell’s novel was an overweening genre melange. Huxleyish futurism; cod-Darwinian Victorian journal; nuclear whistleblower thriller; old folks’ home comedy … A post-ironist’s picaresque epic, the book could hardly have struck even its author as the stuff of star-packed Hollywood spectacle. But here they are. Six roles apiece for Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant (from US oil tycoon to 23rd-century painted cannibal), Jim Broadbent and multiple baddie Hugo Weaving, his finest epiphany a big-busted nurse in the Cuckoo’s Nest mode. (Perhaps it’s a wry salutation to gender reassignment from Lana, formerly Larry, Wachowski.)
Forget Booker prizes. The phrase “quantum trajectories” is the closest the script gets to literary substance, and even that must be terminological loose change for the Matrix creators. Forget nuance too. The book’s slyly funny retirement home episode is broadened into Carry On slapstick; the gay composer/imposter’s letters to his love, outlining a lofty scam in a Belgian château, become an art/sex/death skit set in Scotland.
Never mind. The makers have decided this is a movie. They deploy the smarts and skills needed to intercut Mitchell’s stories in a cinegenic, kaleidoscopic whirl, rather than in (the book’s) stately slabs of narrative. And it’s party time for the actors, playing roles they wouldn’t come near on any other screen project. (Spare a moment of idiot delight for Tom Hanks as a showboating Irish gangster-author and another for Susan Sarandon as a tattooed tribal shaman.) Don’t be daunted by the duration. Three hours to solve the problems of providence, history, human existence and the conundrums of space/time is pretty good going. For the airline version they’ll no doubt bring it in at two and a half.
“In a dream you can’t make mistakes, you can do whatever you want,” says someone in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. Yes. And some film-makers, realising the dream of total control, fall to pieces under the burden of freedom. We saw it in Francis Coppola, we have seen it in Woody Allen. Now we see it in Malick. They can do what they want and what they want becomes as formless as tennis without a net. “Strictureless” leads on to “structureless”.
The cloying, bliss-out pantheism that featured in The Tree of Life is virtually the only feature in Malick’s new film. For two hours Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, lovers home-making in Oklahoma after a romantic prelude in Mont St Michel, drift and prance about the landscape while their disembodied thoughts become an afflatus for the soundtrack. The achingly plotless script reaches out to Javier Bardem as a troubled priest interrogating his doubts. He is no help either: just a gifted actor-presence trying to geld his Minotaur machismo for God and art.
Rachel McAdams gets 10 enigmatic minutes as an old flame. Michael Sheen, Barry Pepper and Amanda Peet, once in the cast, fell to the cutting room floor. On the music track the Parsifal prelude’s strains play over and over, indicating the extent of Malick’s intended mystical reach. But Wagner had a story, a conflict and some half-recognisable human beings. Malick just has his amorphous religiosity and a long, unmanning struggle with his script’s unresolving harmonies.
In Lore four children sundered from their mother and SS officer father as Allies begin the end-of-war clean-up hike towards freedom across Bavaria, picking up a boy who claims to be a Jewish refugee. Toiling to evade Russians and ruffians (demobbed soldiers, starving fugitives), never mind Brits and Yanks, they head for their grandma’s house 500 miles off. On the way they receive an education in the toll of Nazism: its cruelties crying out from old photos or from new posters propagandising the liberation.
For long stretches the film is bizarrely placid. We want to shout at the German cast and Australian director (Cate Shortland of Somersault): “How about some anguish then? How about some drama?” Patience finally pays. With Lore, the older sister (Saskia Rosendahl), we realise numbness is another way of manifesting pain. A sibling’s death, shot by Russians, is made more shocking because we must hurry, unreacting, past it. When the kids reach the sea there is, (anti)poetically, no euphoria: just close-ups of mud, crabs and the hooves of a decrepit carthorse carrying them to the next staging post. The plot might be a dream, even a posthumous one. (“You smell of death,” says a priapic eel angler, sniffing Lore’s neck, before the Jewish boy bashes him with a rock). The coda is clever. Not even safety and sanctuary quite wipe clean the trauma slate. New autocracies lie in wait, ready to replace the old.
Two for the wrinklies, to round off the week. The Road: A Story of Life and Death is an unexpected treasure. Documentarist Marc Isaacs quests for tales of immigrant life along London’s Edgware Road. His older subjects shine like pieces of eight, or eighty, as their eyes well with the emotional wages of endurance and survival instinct: the Viennese lady trying to dismiss the pain of widowhood, the Irish alcoholic battling his withdrawal shakes. Younger hotel worker Iqbal poignantly Skypes his wife, protractedly held back in Kashmir by British red tape. A pub-working Irish girl sings like Adele. An ageing German air hostess is improbably devoted to the snappy, ill-tempered English ex-spouse she lives with. All human life? Yes, and heroically dealing with inhumanity wherever it is found.
Fasten your sick bags for Song for Marion: another sentimental singalong for seniors from the British Cinema that gave us Quartet. I like the insouciance of a film about whether Terence Stamp can sing. Some of us have yet to be persuaded he can act. Here those blank-as-a-plank features and that pancake-flat, gauche vocal delivery prove unexpected mercies: a Zen centre of calm in a pile of twilight-lives twaddle. In the script by once esteemed writer-director Paul Andrew Williams (London to Brighton), an old people’s choir somewhere up north includes among its members Vanessa Redgrave, who keeps demanding hubby Stamp take her to rehearsals even though she is dying of cancer.
Overacting while peering through goggly specs, Redgrave comes on like a drag-act Mr Magoo. (Only great actors can give truly, incandescently terrible performances.) After 45 minutes, to the regret of no one in the audience, she dies. Then it is just Terence, a song, and will he conquer his own performing shyness at the regional choir contest? Nothing becomes this story better than our leaving of it. But Stamp’s song is oddly touching. Sometimes, pace King Lear, something will come of nothing.