Christopher Nolan, no matter what one’s personal opinion of his films is, has firmly established himself as an individual brand in cinema. Like a rare echelon of famous directors before him, he is a filmmaker as famous as a Hollywood movie star. His films tend to be marketed via his name and reputation for high budget inventive trickery rather than anything else. This sort of profile makes each of his features a movie-going event, as well as raises the bar of audience expectations.
Tenet, Nolan’s latest work, does not seem to have met those expectations. Even taking this year’s global pandemic into account, general reactions seemed muted and critics seemed to attack Nolan for failing to deliver anything to his usual standard and instead slipping into self-parody.
To my mind, Tenet feels like mid-range for Christopher Nolan. It does not reach the creative heights of an Inception or a Dark Knight, but neither does it slip to the level of misfires like Interstellar or The Dark Knight Rises. If anything it feels like a mega-budget Hollywood remake of Shane Carruth’s Primer: they share a dizzying interest in presenting reasoned presentations of time travel, however where Carruth focused on a complex head-scratcher of unprecedented proportions Nolan has concetrated on explosive party tricks and narrative sleight of hand. The audience can feel free to criticise it for what it is not, but judged on its own merits Tenet is a rock-solid science fiction thriller with a smarter plot than usual.
The film follows a nameless CIA agent (BlackKklansman‘s John David Washington), left for dead and then picked up by a mysterious organisation. They give him a hand gesture and a word, ‘tenet’, and send him off to save the world from imminent destruction.
All of which is essentially an excuse for Nolan to indulge in the sorts of eye-popping action sequences as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s rotating corridor fight in Inception. The laws of physics get bent and broken, all in the name of generating inventive, unprecedented visual mayhem. If the film never quite scales the heights of Nolan’s best previous work, it is only because those heights were so great in his earlier works. Superficially the film seems maddeningly complex, but a step back reveals a remarkably simple narrative dressed up and coiled into loops. As noted earlier, Nolan’s films work with sleight of hand – part of the pleasure is the illusion of getting lost in something seemingly complex, but which reveals itself elegantly by the end.
Another Nolan trademark sadly continues. His wrong-headed obsession with an immersive ‘wall of sound’ technique floods the soundtrack with Ludwig Göransson’s booming soundtrack, rendering much of the dialogue inaudible. Far from Robert Altman’s famed overlapping dialogue, the technique frustrates and distracts. When watching on home video, sub-titles are honestly advised.
Another flaw that continues to jump from film to film is Nolan’s poor use of female characters. It is not so much that women are treated poorly in his work – although there is some flinch-worthy gendered violence here – as Nolan simply does not understand what women are supposed to do. Here he finds space for a solitary mistreated trophy wife (Elizabeth Debicki) to be largely treated as a cypher – except, of course, when she is acting irrationally through emotion. Debicki, demonstrably a fine actor in other roles, deserves better.
Good performances across the board lift the material. Washington provides a wide-eyed but logical point of view for the audience. Robert Pattinson continues to prove himself to be a great dramatic actor, and looks set to be a great Bruce Wayne in the upcoming The Batman. Michael Caine’s performance is genuinely a one-scene cameo; elegantly played, but effectively an ‘appearance as good luck charm’ for the long-time Nolan associate. Most impressive is Kenneth Branagh as mysterious Russian billionaire Andrei Sator – effectively a contemporary Bond villain in all but name only. His typical theatrical performance style is stripped back to something much more vital and unruly, and inherently threatening. Branagh has a tendency to perform better when not simultaneously directing, and his work here is the best he has done in some time.
Viewers with a distaste for Christopher Nolan’s steely manufactured brand of cinema, if they had any doubt, will undoubtedly dislike Tenet. By the same token, existing fans should find much to enjoy. It is an imperfect film, but to dismiss it would be to punish it for merely being ‘good’ and not ‘great’.