THE 1998 film The Red Violin is one of my favorite films, but it got bad reviews in part due to poor “character development” – but the critics missed the point – the violin was the character. If you havenʻt seen Cloud Atlas from the Wachowski siblings and directed by Run Lola Run‘s Tim Twyker (and you probably havenʻt since itʻs only playing in one half-empty theater), you might consider it if you like convoluted, and non-literal plots. Like The Red Violin, it sacrifices character development for the carrying out of a thread, and a theoretical argument – that our lives are not our own. And the characters are not the individuals, but (Iʻll just say it) their souls. If youʻve seen the trailer (which is long at over 5 minutes, like the film at 2:44), you know that reincarnation is a given in this film. But idea that our lives are not our own is meant in two senses: not just that we reincarnate, but that we are, in a sense, entangled with others.
The ensemble cast, all of whom play multiple roles, worked toward that point, though it was difficult to tell whether that was the only purpose of the multiple roles, or whether it was a money-saving device. The “plot” in a nutshell, consists of Tom Hanks’s multiple characters – Zachary in the distant future (ca. 2300 AD), and Issac in the recent past (1973) – meetings, and his near-misses for relationships with Halle Berry’s Meronym (2300) and journalist Luisa Rey (1973).
A second important relationship “endures” between Jim Sturgess’s Hae Joo Chang and Korean actor Doona Bae’s “replicant” Somni 451. In shades of Blade Runner and Soylent Green, Chang tries to free Somni from the gruesome fate that awaits all replicants, in the meantime falling in love and crossing forbidden territory – mating between replicants and “purebloods.” This revolution fails under the system’s oppressive Big Brother omnipresence, recalling the Wachowskis’ own Matrix. This relationship is “resolved” in the past, between the dying lawyer Adam Ewing in 1849 and his wife Tilda, also played by Doona Bae. All of this suggests the non-linearity of time, as the 1849 resolution is presented after the failed attempt in 2144. Playing multiple roles is nothing new in theater, and does not require any underlying purpose in that genre, but the ensemble cast clearly has a purpose, which loses coherence at this point. In the 1849 sequence, Tom Hanks is the villan, slowly poisoning Ewing while pretending to cure him. Hanks also plays (not convincingly) a murderous writer, and brings in another narrative – that of his publisher Timothy Cavendish, played by Jim Broadbent who effectively conveys the pathos for which he is often cast. Hugh Grant (often unrecognizable) and Susan Sarandon also make multiple appearances, as does perennial Wachowski bad guy Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from the Matrix? ʻNuff said)
There are many other clever ways in which the film’s ideas and themes are linked, and a few other intertwined plots, such as the 1936 relationships between amenuensis (musical scribe) Robert Frobisher (played by Ben Whishaw – Q in the new Bond), Broadbent’s musical genius Vyvyan Ayrs and Frobisher’s lover Rufus Sexsmith. It is Frobisher who writes the Cloud Atlas sextet, a brilliant but obscure piece that is meant to tie the disparate threads together – Luisa Rey in 1973 says she knows the piece when she hears it, though it’s impossible for her to have heard it. Rufus Sexsmith, a young Cambridge student in 1936, is an elderly physicist in 1973, meets Rey and gives her both plans for a nefarious nuclear plot and his love letters with Frobisher. Rey asks “why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over again?” So the film is really about karma, and how many times (read: lives) it takes to get it right.