“What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
When the Wachowski siblings and co-collaborator Tom Tykwer announced they would be creating an adaptation of Cloud Atlas message boards erupted with doubt and trepidation. Despite their shared filmmaking acclaim, could they really manage to film what many commentators had naturally assumed was an unfilmable novel? Having each previously excelled with imaginative, high concept films – the reality-questioning Matrix trilogy and the time-shifting thriller Run Lola Run – the trio decided the answer was “yes” and set about removing the ‘un’ from unfilmable.
Cloud Atlas tells six separate but inter-linked narratives that span five-hundred years, several genres, and many very different locations. These stories switch between a 19th century tale of unlikely brotherhood, an early 20th century long-distance romance between a gay composer and his partner, a taut conspiracy thriller set in 1970s San Francisco, an hilarious account of an old publisher’s woes in present day England, a Blade Runner-esque clone’s struggle for freedom within a dystopian near-future city called Neo-Seoul and the saga of a beleaguered tribe in a post-apocalyptic future.
Not only is David Mitchell’s 2004 novel a vast source of material, but its narrative is inherently linked to and focused on the written word. The trio of filmmakers faced the formidable task of compressing the vast ocean of information that was present within the original novel, but to employ a phrase that is repeated throughout the narrative and perfectly expresses the directors’ method “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops”. The filmmakers disassembled the various pieces of Mitchell’s jigsaw-like narrative and pieced them together to generate their own cinema-friendly interpretation.
In addition to delivering a breathtaking reimagining of Mitchell’s complex story, the filmmakers also achieve a thoroughly engaging narrative designed to reach a universal audience without ever compromising the novelist’s postmodern notions. The plethora of themes Mitchell weaved throughout his narrative was the inspiration for the filmmakers and it was vital that they made them apparent in their adaptation. Rather than leaving them on the page the filmmakers use intelligent visual creativity to apply them as the thematic underpinning to their tale. In much the same way that the narratives are linked by the use of actors in multiple roles, so are themes of politics, society, culture and gender applied in dramatically different contexts, settings and times.
Wonderfully worked writing, glorious visuals and a host of powerful performances confirm the filmmakers’ efforts to achieve on screen the many elements that Mitchell was able to subtly hint at within the text. The result is a film that transcends genre and narrative conventions, but that also dissolves social, physical and cultural barriers like few if any others. At three hours it’s an enduring watch, but it’s a film so rich and delicious you’ll want to savour it.