It's easy and somewhat appropriate to afford the unlikely big-screen treatment of David Mitchell's acclaimed novel “Cloud Atlas” the same kind of admiration typically lavished on first-time exhibitions to treacherous, far-flung locales.
But the Wachowski siblings (“The Matrix” movies) and Tom Tykwer (“The International”) deserve credit for more than just pulling off their seemingly impossible adaptation of the intricate novel. The co-writer/directors have created an ambitious work of art that transcends genre and storytelling conventions — and does it all in breathtaking style.
Like the 500-page book, “Cloud Atlas” consists of six different interconnected stories that span centuries and continents. Astonishingly, the filmmaking trio keeps the tales largely intact while making canny changes to Mitchell's storytelling framework.
Thanks to their stellar international cast as well as a game makeup team, the Wachowskis and Tykwer use the intrinsically visual nature of the medium to emphasize the interlocking nature of the stories. The principal actors all play a part in every story, whether a lead turn or a quick cameo, meaning they often depict people of different genders and ethnicities. For instance, Halle Berry portrays a Jewish-German trophy wife, a Maori plantation slave and a male Korean doctor from the future — and those are just the minor roles she plays in the truly epic movie.
The movie opens with a sweeping period epic set in 1849, as idealistic American attorney Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) traverses the South Pacific on business and discovers firsthand the horrors of the slave trade. The tragic artist's drama of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a rebellious aspiring composer who finds work assisting one of his ill and aging idols (Jim Broadbent), picks up in Scotland in 1936 and is told through letters the troubled musician pens to his friend and former lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy).
In San Francisco in 1973, Sixsmith, now an elderly physicist, tips off investigative journalist Luisa Rey (Berry) about potentially deadly corporate malfeasance at a nuclear power plant, and the movie shifts into a gritty thriller.
Broadbent gets to show off his impeccable timing as he plays small-time London publisher Timothy Cavendish, whose vengeful brother (Hugh Grant) remands him to a prisonlike nursing home. Cavendish plots an audacious jailbreak in the broad comedy set in the present day.
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Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Ben Wishaw, Doona Bae, James D'Arcy, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Keith David and Susan Sarandon. (Violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use)