Film review | Cloud Atlas – Tykwer & the Wachowskis bring epic sweep and giddy pace to time-leaping tale

CLOUD ATLAS - TOM HANKS as Zachry and HALLE BERRY as Meronym

A trio of directors bring David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas to the screen – and their film is sure to arouse strong passions for and against, just as Mitchell’s bestselling book has been doing since its publication in 2004.

Mitchell’s genre-hopping, time-leaping tale spins six different narratives across six different epochs – from the mid-Victorian era to a post-apocalyptic future. The novel is dizzying and compelling. And so is the film.

True, you’ll have to buy into the conceit of the same bunch of actors popping up in different guises in each story, swapping genders and races while sporting a variety of funny accents and even funnier noses. And you’ll also have to swallow the notion of souls migrating from one body to another over time, morally improving or regressing in each lifespan. But accept these devices and the power of the storytelling will sweep you along.

CLOUD ATLAS - JAMES D'ARCY as young Rufus Sixsmith and BEN WHISHAW as Robert Frobisher

Sharing writing and directing duties, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix films) take Mitchell’s complex narrative and give it breathtaking momentum on screen. Admittedly, they lose the novel’s element of dazzling pastiche, but they bring out its qualities of rollicking adventure and cliffhanging suspense.

Will the ailing young American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) aboard a 19th-century ship in the Pacific survive the not-so-tender ministrations of Tom Hanks’ opportunistic doctor? Will Ben Whishaw’s rackety young composer win his battle of wills with a famous ageing composer (Jim Broadbent) in 1930s Edinburgh and complete his masterpiece?

Will Halle Berry’s intrepid journalist in 1970s San Francisco survive attempts on her life and succeed in exposing nuclear-industry corruption? Will the present-day vanity publisher (Broadbent again) get out of the old people’s home in which he finds himself trapped?

Will the awakening consciousness of Somni~451 (Doona Bae), a cloned ‘fabricant’ server in a 22nd-century fast-food restaurant, be an inspiration to the world? And will Zach’ry (Hanks), a tribesman in a distant post-apocalyptic future, find the inner courage to complete a terrifying quest?

CLOUD ATLAS - ZHU ZHU as 12th Star Clone

Each story grips in its own way, but they are unified by recurring ideas and images: selflessness versus cannibalistic predation, sympathy opposed to greed, freedom against slavery. Then there’s the comet-shaped birthmark that appears on the body of the protagonist in each tale.

When you’ve spotted all the links, you may not feel they add up to anything truly profound, but the film’s sumptuous visuals and giddy pace makes it enormously entertaining.

In cinemas from Friday 22nd February.

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