Dai Congrong’s bestselling Chinese translation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and the film version of David Mitchell’s 2004 Booker shortlisted novel, Cloud Atlas, both complex fictions about the cyclical nature of life, should warn us against calling anything unfilmable or untranslatable. They are not necessarily proof, however, that they’re worth filming or translating.
In a charming introduction to the new paperback edition of his novel, Mitchell expresses his good fortune that it fell into such “capable hands” as Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, the film’s co-directors and adaptors. The Wachowskis love intricate narratives and the world of ideas; their Matrix trilogy has, I believe, been used in introductory philosophy courses at American colleges. Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, a German action movie telling the same story thrice, with events taking different courses, was preceded by an epigraph from Eliot’s Little Gidding, and he later filmed Heaven, the first part of a trilogy left at his death by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the Polish cinematic metaphysician.
Mitchell’s novel tells six interrelated stories in a variety of genres spread over a period of nearly 500 years, from 1850 to 2321. They run consecutively but stop just before their crucial concluding episodes, which then follow in the latter part of the book. The adaptors have wisely decided to establish, relatively briefly, the six settings and then interweave the stories. This produces some initial puzzlement but results in a rather different, more compact effect.
In the earliest story, set in the South Pacific in 1850, an American lawyer is converted to the abolitionist cause after meeting a fugitive slave. In the second, set in Scotland in the mid-1930s (and inspired by Eric Fenby’s memoir of working with Frederick Delius), an ambitious gay musician seeks redemption by attaching himself as an amanuensis to an elderly composer. The third strand takes place in 2012 and offers social satire and comic relief. A dotty, impoverished publisher (a characteristically funny turn by Jim Broadbent) becomes suddenly wealthy by bringing out an Irish thug’s autobiography, and to escape the author’s brutal brothers he’s given shelter in what proves to be a Kafkaesque asylum.
The next in time, its mode the political conspiracy thriller, centres on an investigative reporter (Halle Berry) exposing a nefarious power conglomerate’s world-threatening activities in San Francisco in 1973, the post-Summer of Love period when the counterculture was in decline. The last two narrative strands, in some ways the most conventional, are science-fiction tales set in different dystopian futures that recall HG Wells’s The Time Machine and the 1936 film of his Things to Come. In a waterlogged brave new Seoul of 2146, a sub-class is being cloned to provide servants for the local dictators, as well as more sinister services. In an even more distant, post-apocalyptic future, where a form of pidgin English is spoken, an old man called Zachry (Tom Hanks) tries to preserve a certain decency in a barbaric world dominated by marauding bands of cannibalistic horsemen.
Inevitably the film’s form invites comparison with the first great American movie, DW Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), in which four historical narratives of persecution, ranging from ancient Babylon to the contemporary US, are intertwined. Intolerance, however, is dominated by one single big idea, whereas Cloud Atlas names and dramatises a wide variety: heaven and the afterlife; karma and the transmigration of souls; the ancient belief in life as a repetitive cycle that Nietzsche revived in the concept of “eternal recurrence”; Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; Einstein’s theory of relativity; the transformational experiences of Carlos Castaneda and, of course, deja vu.
This heady stuff is given an intoxicating sense of individual purpose in Cloud Atlas, where everything is connected across the years by an image, a phrase, a dream, the eponymous piece of music, as well as through a diary, a letter, a film, a book that passes on a predecessor’s thought. It also asks how eternal recurrence can be changed by love and sacrifice, to thwart what appears to be a persistent cycle of cruelty, oppression and exploitation. One major role of culture is to offer spiritual consolation, especially in times of doubt and chaos, and Cloud Atlas clearly belongs alongside such mystical works as The Life of Pi and the films of Terrence Malick that aspire to answer such needs at a higher, more sophisticated level than sentimental comfort.
This takes us into another of the directors’ strategies – the casting of each of the leading actors in five or six roles. This, again, isn’t new: Stanley Kubrick used this device in numerous films, most notably his debut Fear and Desire, Lolita, Dr Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Lindsay Anderson employed it throughout his picaresque masterpiece O Lucky Man!. But no one has used it as extensively as here, with characters reappearing over the centuries, shifting between young and old, male and female, Europe and Asia. John Huston in his comedy-thriller The List of Adrian Messenger employed the gimmick of disguising familiar stars as a way of distracting us from a thin script. This is not the case with Cloud Atlas, but we do spend a lot of time trying to identify the actors behind the prosthetic makeup, thus distracting us from noting their roles in the giant mosaic. No doubt the directors expect us to recognise the connections subliminally.
Still, it has a certain grandeur, if ultimately it’s an inspiritingly ambitious folly. The cinematographers (John Toll, Frank Griebe) and the designers (Hugh Bateup, Uli Hanisch) have done a fine job, and this is one of the rare, large-scale international co-productions that have a sense of unity. I occasionally winced but was mostly emotionally and intellectually involved, carried along by the oceanic flow. I’m not at all sure, though, that I’d want to see Cloud Atlas a second time – at least, not in this life.
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