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Review: ‘Cloud Atlas’ is unfilmmable sprawl

Adapting David Mitchell’s award-winning novel Cloud Atlas for the screen comes with several challenges. Its six linked storylines don’t lend well to conventional screenplay structure. To do its sprawling narratives justice would require risking a run time that would stretch attention-span boundaries. Then there’s the sprawling cast, which would further distract from being able to follow the story and figure out the ultimate purpose of filmmakers Andy and Lana (nee Larry) Wachowski, and co-director Tom Twyker.

The solution to the latter was to cast the principle members of the ensemble — Doona Bae, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess — in multiples roles, layered under heavy makeup. It’s the film’s major flaw. The actors often look uncomfortable, with natural facial expressions hampered by disproportionate or badly applied prosthetics. To the filmmakers’ credit, there was no other way to handle the suggestion of characters reincarnated again and again during a 500-year period, and there is a profoundly delivered line of dialogue that acts as sort of a disclaimer: “All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended.”

They also did their best to restructure the order of the recurring storylines within a nearly three-hour length, and the threads do eventually connect. The linkage starts with a 19th-century notary sick at sea and leads to a 1930s bisexual composer’s assistant, a 1970s journalist uncovering a nuclear energy scandal, a publisher tricked into living at a nursing home, a fugitive clone in futuristic Korea and pidgin-speaking survivors of a catastrophe in what used to be Hawaii. A steady musical score tempers the abruptness of scene shifts, but trying to take everything in clouds the movie’s messages. Some stories just have to be taken in slowly, and Cloud Atlas may indeed have been best left in novel form if a mini-series was out of the question.