Review Date: 12-3-12
Release Date: 10-26-12, USA
Runtime: 172 minutes
Period: 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and 106 A. F. (2321)
I don’t even know where to begin with this movie. It is breathtaking in its scope, and is such an impressive piece of work. The film explores six different time periods, six different (but linked) storylines, and it manages to utilize the same troupe of actors in all of the different scenarios. Shooting all storylines simultaneously, with two costume designers and a crew of over fifty in the costume department, it is an astounding accomplishment. You won’t believe your eyes.
There are six stories in the film, and the only way I can explain all of this for you is in chronological order. In the movie, these time periods are all intercut, but I will try to untangle it all for you here. Let me state that I did not read the book and am not explaining the story from the book– I am just laying out the specific story threads from the film in their simplest form.
1849, South Pacific
Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) arrives on an island (on behalf of his father-in-law) to do business with Rev. Giles Horrox (Hugh Grant). Along the way, he meets Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), an alleged medical doctor in the islands collecting teeth. Adam witnesses the whipping of a slave Autua (David Gyasi) and faints. Dr. Goose tells him that the fainting is due to a parasitic worm, and treats him with tinctures and other medicine-like things on the ship back to California. Autua has stowed away on the boat, and after proving himself, is allowed to stay. Autua saves Adam’s life when he discovers Dr. Goose is poisoning Adam. Upon arrival in California, Adam reunites with his wife Tilda (Doona Bae), and burns the business contract (ostensibly furthering the slave trade) in front of his father-in-law (Hugo Weaving). He won’t be a part of slavery.
Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) and Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) are having a love affair in the shadow of the beginnings of WWII. Frobisher starts work as a musical transcriber and aide to composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), an old, eccentric codger of a man. Frobisher uses his down time to compose the Cloud Atlas Sextet (a symphony), and Ayrs tries to take credit for it. During an argument in which Ayrs threatens to ruin Frobisher’s reputation, Frobisher shoots Ayrs, and flees to a hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland. Frobisher finishes the Cloud Atlas piece, and then, despondent over his life, shoots himself in the head. Sixsmith arrives a minute too late to save him.
1973, San Francisco
Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is an investigative journalist for Spyglass magazine. She meets the elderly Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) in an elevator one night, and he calls her with a tip about nefarious goings-on at a nuclear plant. By the time she arrives to meet with him, he’s been murdered by Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving), a hit man on the nuclear power plant’s payroll. She finds old love letters from Frobisher to Sixsmith and removes them from the murder scene. Following clues, she goes to the nuclear plant where she meets Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks), who gives her a copy of the secret report that will blow the lid off the scandal. As he flies out of town, his plane explodes – Smoke planted a bomb under his seat. As Rey drives back home, Smoke runs her off the road and her car plunges into the Bay. She escapes with her life. Another clue leads to Sixsmith’s niece, who gives Rey a copy of the secret report. Rey writes a whistle-blowing article that makes the front pages of all the papers.
Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is a book publisher. His latest client, thuggish Dermott Hoggins (Tom Hanks) has written a book Knuckle Sandwich, that’s not selling. At a party, Hoggins angrily throws a book critic over a balcony to his death. The ensuing publicity drives sales through the roof. Hoggins’ hooligan associates threaten Cavendish and want the royalty money. Cavendish seeks help from his wealthy and bitter brother Denholme (Hugh Grant), who books him into a hotel so he can hide. However, it turns out that the hotel is actually an old-folks home, and Cavendish has signed his rights away – he is effectively a prisoner. Cavendish joins a group of other seniors yearning for freedom, and they make a break for it. They are pursued by hospital staff, including the horrible Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving), and eventually vindicated in a rip-roaring bar fight. Cavendish ends up reunited with his first love Ursula (Susan Sarandon).
2144, Neo-Seoul, Korea
This is a world in which human beings have been successfully cloned for specific purposes. There are “Pure Bloods” and there are clones. These clones are called “fabricants”, and Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is one such, working at a fast food restaurant as a waitress. All of the waitresses yearn for the day when they will have “exaltation”, when, after twelve years of restaurant service, they will be granted their freedom from slavery. Through a series of events, Sonmi-451 is rescued from her situation by Pure Blood Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess), a member of the resistance. Sonmi-451 soon learns the horrifying truth about the nature of the fabricants’ role in society, and vows to fight until all of the structures of slavery are destroyed. As she broadcasts the truth to the world, Hae-Joo and his Resistance fighters are attacked and a mighty battle ensues. Sonmi-45 is captured, interrogated, and killed.
106 A. F. (After the Fall; 2321), Tropical Islands (Hawaii?)
The “Fall” wiped out humanity. Only a few primitive people remain. On one island, we meet “Valley People” tribesman Zachry (Tom Hanks), who has witnessed the vicious murder of his friend Adam by a tribe of cannibals called the Kona. Plagued by hallucinations of the devil Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving) on his shoulder, Zachry ekes out a primitive existence. One day a woman Meronym (Halle Berry) arrives. She’s a member of the “Prescient” people, a different tribe that is far more technologically advanced than the Valley People. When Zachry’s niece gets a potentially fatal bite, he seeks help from Meronym, who has a healing tool that would save her life. In exchange for the use of the tool, Zachry agrees to guide Meronym up the treacherous mountain paths to Cloud Atlas, an old religious compound at the top of the mountains. At Cloud Atlas, Meronym is able to send a signal for help so that both tribes can be rescued. When they descend the mountain, Zachry sees that his village has been burned, and his people massacred, by the Kona. He and Meronym slay all of the Kona, and escape to a ship with Zachry’s young niece.
Years later (decades later?), we see Old Zachry telling stories to his grandchildren. There are two moons in the background, and he points to a distant blue planet, Earth. He joins Old Meronym, his wife, in an embrace.
All of these stories speak to the injustice of slavery, racism, prejudice and class warfare. In the 1849 story, it is literal. In 1936, it’s the prejudice of being gay, and the threat of Hitler and the Nazis. In the 1973 storyline it’s the rich corporations polluting and killing the environment for the sake of profit. In the 2012 scenario, it’s the inequity of the treatment of the elderly. In 2144, it’s fabricants-vs.-pure bloods… AND slavery. And in 106 A. F., it’s tribe vs. tribe. The theme here is that no matter how long humankind exists, we still can’t learn the lesson that we are all one huge, living, breathing organism; we are all one people. There is no one group better than another; we are all equal.
It is interesting, therefore, that so many roles in the film should be played by the same people. The statement that they appear to make is that it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, white, black or Asian, you are a person, and that is significant enough. In the film there are women actors playing men (Halle Berry plays a male underground doctor in the 2144 story), men playing women (Hugo Weaving plays Nurse Noakes in the 2012 story), Asian playing Caucasian (Doona Bae plays Tilda in the 1849 story), Caucasian playing Asian (Jim Sturgess plays Hae-Joo in the 2144 storyline), and so on. This is an important statement that the film makes, and it is really weird that there are groups out there who don’t get it. This isn’t Mickey Rooney or Jerry Lewis lampooning Asian culture. These are performances delicately thought out, intended to remind us that it really doesn’t matter what our race or gender is; it matters that we are human, and it matters that we aspire for equality and justice.
The costumes in the film are really lovely. Each storyline has its own palette and “look”, while still fitting into the overall aesthetic. There were three directors on this film – Larry and Lana Wachowski (working as a team), and Tom Twyker. There are two costume designers for the film, Kym Barrett (who has worked with the Wachowskis on The Matrix movies), and Pierre-Yves Gayraud (who has worked with Twyker on Perfume). In the end credits, we find out that the 1849, 2144 and 106 A. F. storylines were directed by the Wachowskis. The 1936, 1973 and 2012 storylines were directed by Twyker. My feeling is that team Wachowski got Kym Barrett, and Team Twyker got Pierre-Yves Gayraud. I can’t confirm this, but it’s an educated guess. It would only be fair to divide the workload along those lines. The film is big, big, big – with lots of background and action and CGI effects and green screen.
The 1849 story is rich in color – saturated earth tone hues, really nice, sweaty aging. You can almost smell these characters. There is a very distinct separation between the rich white people and the poor slaves on the island.
The rich white people are dressed head-to-toe in wool and layers in the heat, at their peril. The slaves are shirtless and sweaty. On the boat it seems that no one ever changes his clothes, and yeuch! I can’t imagine the stench.
Once we get back to California, the well-heeled group at dinner tells us all we need to know about the chasm between rich and poor. In their finery, it’s almost a slap to Adam’s face to see them eating and relaxing, when he’s seen the fate of slaves.
The 1936 storyline is beautiful in amber and sepia tones. This segment felt like a memory to me – slightly fuzzy, dreamy, and seen through glass.
As the Composer Ayrs, Jim Broadbent appears as a daft old rich guy – all severe hair, smoking jackets and impatience. Jocasta (Halle Berry) as his wife is a remarkable contrast.
One gorgeous garment from this storyline is the robe, or dressing gown, worn by Ayrs. It’s a silk velvet gown, and the pattern reeks of Bauhaus, Sonia Delaunay, and a German-friendly vibe that would set the stage for his disdain for bisexual Frobisher.
The hotel manager in this storyline is played by Tom Hanks, who negotiates with Frobisher – in exchange for his (the manager’s) silence when questioned by police, he gets the beautiful vest/waist coat that once belonged to Sixsmith, one of Frobisher’s prized possessions.
The Luisa Rey story, 1973, is lovely in its use of color as well. Luisa is dressed across the board in earth tones, which works well for her as she is a reporter trying to uncover an environmental disaster with the nuclear plant. She’s fighting for the earth, and she’s wearing earth tones.
For the most part, she wears a similar silhouette, if not actual reused garments throughout this segment. I really like the realism in that sense.
There were a lot of turtlenecks and fat ties in this storyline, appropriate for the 1970s, and while we had these kind of very specific markers of the time period, it never looked like an episode of Starsky and Hutch or the Brady Bunch. It was 1970s mellow, and it worked.
The 2012 segment was similarly subdued in tone – lots of browns, blacks, beige, and muddy colors. As Dermott Hoggins, Tom Hanks channels Ali G, which is hilarious – gold chain, diamond stud and all.
His thugs are leather-clad, a nice visual contrast to Cavendish’s tweed and bowtie look. It’s hooligan vs. crusty Brit. A nice study in characterization.
By the time we get to the bar fight, we’ve met Nurse Noakes, a terrifying fireplug of a woman. Here at the bar, she’s attacked by a Scottish football fanatic (Jim Sturgess), and she soon hits the floor. Note the use of subdued earth tones here. Nothing crazy or attention-grabbing.
The 2144 storyline was visually astounding. It was like Blade Runner on speed. All of the fabricant girls were on an automated schedule. Wake, eat, shower, dress, like clockwork. Their waitress uniforms (and for that matter, everything they wear) are super-skimpy, and visually put these women into the realm of sexual exploitation.
Their sleepwear is a similarly-cut dress, made of the material you get CDs in – you know that perforated fabric used to store CDs and DVDs, it’s lint free and stiff? I don’t know what that material (you can hardly call it fabric) is called, but their garments were made from it.
Here, the fabricants drink their meals, which in retrospect makes me want to barf, knowing what it is. Note the hair streaks and complete homogenization of the look.
Turns out, the prison garb is made out of the same stuff. You can see the pattern of colors by now – it’s black, white, and red. Only in the fast food restaurant did we see any real color in Sonmi-451’s life. By contrast, the pure bloods can wear whatever they want. Hae-Joo provides her with a closet full of clothing, including a much more grown-up blue dress (seen here). She cuts the hair streaks out of her hair.
When the bad guys come for them, Sonmi-451 is wearing a flimsy floral robe. Hae-Joo takes her out the window and they try to escape on a narrow walkway. Here you can see the green-screen involved in making the shot. So, no green can be used in the costumes, otherwise the image replacement will be seen through the costume.
Hugo Weaving as Boardman Mephi (a prison adjudicator) and his henchmen wear these scary, shimmery cassock-like garments. The silhouette gives them a feeling of dominant authority – the sleek architectural lines make them appear fortress-like.
I don’t know the name for this kind of personage in the story, but these read-cloaked people are kind of like the death guards. Look at the beautiful shape and color contrast in this world. It’s stunning.
The best costume, ever, in this storyline, though – the “enforcer” police costumes. Wow, they are scary!!!! With a shield covering their face, and and their robotically precise movements, they are like emotionless, cold, hard drones. I loved the shiny, reflective surfaces. You look into their face, and only see your own terrified eyes looking back. Beautifully done.
The 106 A. F. sequence features a lot of really interesting ideas. First of all, the Valley People. Most of their clothing looks crocheted, macramed, and otherwise twisted out of fiber. These people almost look like fish caught in nets. They have trinkets woven in to their garments, and everything is in the muddy earth-tone range.
By contrast, the Prescients – and Meronym is the only example in the film – wear white, and the fabric seems curiously dirt-resistant!! It is almost a contrast like City Mouse/Country Mouse – it is quite stark.
The Valley People look like unwashed masses next to the austere beauty of Meronym. Here, you see Susan Sarandon as the Abbess – the priestess and spiritual leader. Note the natural colors and hand-worked textiles. It’s quite beautiful.
The Kona tribe – the cannibals – are seen in this film in a sort of indigenous costume. And by that, I mean that there is a lot of indigenous people subtext to these costumes. The facial paint looks like New Guinean tribesmen, the body armor also looks Papuan, but with a macabre twist – human jawbones, teeth and body parts are used as decoration. It goes by so quickly in the film, you’d hardly notice it. However, when you slow down and look – UGH! Disgusting! But in a good way, of course. These are appropriate costumes for these characters!
Old Georgie, the Devil, is portrayed as a nightmarish wraith. With his gross skin and teeth, and long, treacly pieces of God-knows-what swirling about him, he’s a bad dream that won’t go away. He looks different from everyone in this storyline (top hat?!), but the silhouette connects us to the other storylines with which we are also involved. It’s a nice wrap-around.
I am dying to talk with Kym Barrett or Pierre-Yves Gayraud to figure out how this all went down. There are so many intersecting moments between the storyline, and some involve costume (a vest button in one storyline ends up in the 106 A. F. storyline) and it would be fascinating to hear how they were able to collaborate and make it all happen so seamlessly.
I encourage you to see this film, Frocktalkers – and please, see it in the theater. The effects are so magical, the costumes so intricate and the makeup is so dazzling – you won’t be able to tell who is who and what is what in this film. It’s best to see it on the big screen. But just know ahead of time that it is very nearly three hours long, so put some extra money aside for the babysitter, if you know what I mean!
The costumes are really gorgeous, and I can’t wait to get some more information about how this all came to be. I look forward to sharing any info I get with you. Enjoy the movie, everyone!!