David Mitchell’s Booker-shortlisted 2004 novel Cloud Atlas is one of my all-time favourite books; it’s also a novel that tends to divide people. When I forced my book club to read it back in 2009, the response (to my everlasting heartbreak) was universally negative. Earlier this year, several members of ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club sniffily dismissed Mitchell’s novel as ‘clever’: clever, in this instance, being a euphemism for ‘wanky’.
When a book that polarises people with such force is made into a blockbuster Hollywood movie, the stage is set for a strident clash of opinions. I was outraged when I learned that the adaptation would star Halle Berry and Tom Hanks: as far as I was concerned, the celluloid version of Cloud Atlas was going to be a star-studded, budget-bloated travesty.
However, having finally seen it, I’ve been forced to revise my preconceptions. While it might sometimes veer alarmingly close to the saccharine, Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Twyker’s vision of Mitchell’s complex and beautiful novel translates to the screen surprisingly well, thanks to a combination of clever writing, fine acting and mesmerising special effects.
Mitchell’s book is split into six stories, each of which is set in a different time and place, from nineteenth century travel journal to futuristic sci-fi adventure. Mitchell ties his wildly differing tales together with a clever (that word again) conceit: the principal characters in each story have the same souls, reincarnated through the ages and identified by a comet-shaped birthmark. It’s a trick that turns what could have been a disparate (but artful) collection of stories into coherent and insightful exploration of power, love, freedom, courage, the significance of our connections with others, and how our actions and beliefs reverberate through past, present, and future.
How can this possibly be squeezed into just under three hours? Perhaps not in ways that you might expect; whether or not you’ve read the book, it’s worth seeing the film for the impressive scope of its ambition and execution. Twyker and the Wachowskis chop and change between all six stories, which proves a wonderful way to draw you into its rich and visually stunning narrative universe. It also makes more explicit the elements that link each tale: the diary in the first story becomes a book read by a character in the second story; the events of the fourth story become a film watched by characters in the fifth story; the film’s final moments deftly interlock the first and last stories, finishing off a dizzying spectacle of concentric narrative circles.
Adding to this sense of continuity is the fact that every principle cast member plays multiple roles, male and female: Halle Berry is a tenacious, bellbottom-wearing journalist and a mysterious visitor from a future civilization, Hugo Weaving a cold-blooded hitman and a rather terrifying nurse, Ben Wishaw a flamboyant composer and an adulterous wife. While some reviews have been less than enthusiastic about this casting approach, claiming that the use of heavy makeup and prosthetics is distracting and inauthentic (I’ve never seen so many fake noses), I can’t imagine that the film’s themes and message would have been so effectively conveyed had different actors been used for every role. The familiar faces and features that recur in each tale become a kind of visual metaphor, another way of reinforcing the ties that bind its characters through time and space.
Inevitably, there are moments when the film’s reach exceeds its grasp. Some of its final scenes overstay their welcome as the screenplay works overtime to make us believe in the power and ubiquity of love – it seems that Hollywood can never resist a touch of schmaltz.
But for all this, Cloud Atlas remains both a visual spectacle and a wonderfully captivating epic; it’s an admirable adaptation, and stands alone as a daring and imaginative piece of filmmaking. Despite the broad reach of its stories and their varied styles and settings, together they manage to perfectly capture something essential and true about what it means to be human, about our entwined need for power, for love, for trust, and for something – or someone – to live for.
Cloud Atlas will be released in Australian cinemas February 21, 2013.
Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based academic editor and freelance writer. She remains adamant that the book is always better than the film, no matter how many prosthetic noses the latter may involve.