If David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” novel adaptation Cloud Atlas does nothing else, it shows that people should stop calling novels “unfilmable” – because at three hours long, this certainly is a film. Directing collaborators Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis manage far more than simply putting page to screen, however, by virtue of sheer ambition. The result? A curious creation raising a diverse range of questions, from “What does it mean to be free?” to “Did I just see Hugh Grant playing a Hawaiian cannibal?”
The movie is really six interwoven films, each with their own setting, genre and historical period, whilst all united by a single (gimmicky) spiritual force. We follow a young man in the 1800s rescued by a fugitive slave, a composer in the 1930s, a journalist in 1973 and a present day publisher on the run from gangsters. We also visit the future, joining a rebellious clone in Seoul and a post-apocalyptic tribe in 2321.
Thanks to nimble editing, a sudden relocation from a 19th century slave ship to a space ship becomes normality over the film’s course. Some stories fail to gel thematically, though, as a comedic section featuring Hugo Weaving in drag sits uneasily beside sci-fi scenes of human extermination. At such moments, The Full Monty is blended with Bladerunner, which, despite the movie’s theme of destiny, was never meant to happen.
Ben Whishaw and Doona Bae contribute moving performances which are however undermined by creepy changes in race, where slightly disturbing make-up brings us a white Halle Berry and an Asian James D’arcy. Rather than simply expanding the cast, distracting prosthetics are overused in the transformation of famous faces. Whilst the intended effect is to create a figurative link between the characters in different eras, it really becomes a game of “higher or lower” with the fluctuating dimensions of Tom Hanks’ rubber nose.
Physically draining just to watch, Cloud Atlas is an inconsistent epic. It is both intentionally and unintentionally funny, with some poignant and touching moments alongside scenes of irretrievable absurdity. If in search of an unforgettable film – for better or for worse – look no further, not least because Hugh Grant somehow pulls off tribal warpaint.