The Story is the Thing

bleakhouse_coverAs I work on my upcoming review of 12 Angry Men, I’ve been taking breaks with the 2005 miniseries version of Bleak House, now available on Netflix. I first saw this version a few years ago and enjoyed it. Rewatching it now, I find so much more to admire. Of course the acting is top notch (Gillian Anderson! Carey Mulligan! Anna Maxwell Martin!), and the production values are considerable. But what I find most distinctive about this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ hefty masterpiece is the use of jump cuts to convey a certain mood. We’re looking at a meadow and then BAM! we’ve zeroed in on a carriage carrying Lady Dedlock. This stylistic choice takes a huge novel about a labyrinthine legal case and makes it intimate and modern.

Avid bibliophiles like myself are sometimes guilty of saying about literary adaptations: “It’s good. . . but not as good as the book”– if a book itself is something sacred. It’s not. When someone refers to any kind of art as a sacred thing, they have removed themselves from the art in question. It is no longer something they enjoy and take comfort in. Instead it belongs in a museum.

I’m trying to discipline myself into considering every book and film as itself and nothing more. A film adaptation of a novel–even my favorite novels!– should be judged on its value as a movie. After all, book reading is a private experience. My mental image of Allan Woodcourt is different from everyone else’s. So how can I expect a film to portray exactly my mental experience of a novel?

the hobbit_bookAs I’ve discovered rewatching Bleak House, a film adaptation can in fact update a story and bring it into our modern world. In a different sense, a film can take a story and make it entirely its own. Take for example the most recent adaptation of The Hobbit. I loved the book as a child and liked the film a lot, but they are two different beasts. The book was about a hobbit who had an adventure. The film was about a band of swashbuckling dwarves who happen to have a hobbit in their midst. Of course, the film had its own problems (particularly with the lazy CGI), but in the end I can only judge it on its own merits, not as it relates to the book.

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I know there are a lot of book lovers out there. What do you think? I love to hear from you!

(I own nothing related to Bleak House or The Hobbit.)

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Cloud Atlas (2012)

It’s funny how the beginning of this blog worked out. The first film I reviewed was Jack Reacher, a movie so boring it drove me to housework. My second is Cloud Atlas, which is many things but certainly not boring. It’s a labyrinth of obscure connections. In the end, I can’t say I actually understood the movie (or even that it is meant to be understood), but I certainly enjoyed trying to figure it out.

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Cloud Atlas consists of several interwoven storylines. A character’s actions resonate not only in his or her own time but also in the past and future. Much of the interconnectivity is established by having the same actor playing different roles across time and space. This is both a strength and a failing. On one hand, seeing Tom Hanks as a corrupt nineteenth-century ship’s doctor and a whistle-blowing modern scientist makes an interesting contrast. But at the same time I found myself distracted by playing “spot the actor” in each timeline. Also, I was unclear how much significance to accord each actor appearance. Sure, the aforementioned bad ship’s doctor/good scientist disparity is interesting, but what of James D’Arcy as the lover of a doomed composer and as a government official far in the future? His make-up in the latter role is so heavy that I didn’t recognize him until the credits, and discovering his dual role did not change my opinion of his characters.

cloud_hanksberryThe star-studded cast is headed by Hanks and Halle Berry; other notables include Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae. With a cast this strong and a story so convoluted, it’s hard to pick out any particular performance. Suffice to say that I was pleasantly surprised at Tom Hanks’s ability to take on multiple accents. He is such an American icon that it is sometimes easy to forget that he is also a gifted actor in his own right.

I was in awe of the cosmetic work in this film, particularly in the case of Doona Bae. Bae is a Korean actor, yet here she plays a genetically engineered clone with South Asian features and also a nineteenth-century white woman named Tilda Ewing. There is a ghost of her real race when she appears as Tilda–it is clear that Bae is the actor onscreen–yet she is also a believable white woman. Those who were up in arms about the design team’s use of “yellow face” got it all wrong. It is obvious the only intention of changing the actors’ race was to make them fit within each storyline and film’s overall message. If there ever was an appropriate use of race change onscreen, this is it.

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I understand this is a confusing review. Cloud Atlas is a confusing film. In many ways it is unreviewable. You may not like it, but the sheer ambition of the project makes it impossible to discount. I really can’t even say what the movie is about. Like the recent indie release Upstream Color, it is open for interpretation. One reading is that it is a study of different forms of storytelling. Each timeline represents a specific genre. We have the hero’s journey in the nineteenth century sea voyage, the modern investigative drama in the story of a journalist looking into corrupt business practices in 1970s San Francisco, the Matrix-style sci-fi adventure in futuristic Seoul (Neo-Seoul) and a post-apocalyptic search for a new homeland placed at some point in the distant future. The connection between each timeline demonstrates the similarities at the root of all stories.

That is the English major answer, but there is another. In Cloud Atlas, time is not a straight line. It is an ocean in which all eras exist simultaneously. We are not only affected by those we meet in our lifetime but also by those who existed before and will exist after us. Our actions have a much larger effect than we can ever realize. So we are never truly isolated, and we are all of value.

A powerful message from a very long and confusing movie. I need to watch it again.

4/5 stars

I would love to hear what you think! Please drop me a message!

Next: Silver Linings Playbook

[I own nothing related to this film.]