I sauntered along to the cinema for my second post-lockdown viewing last Thursday evening, having been graced with the splendid lunacy of Russell Crowe in Unhinged a fortnight ago. I was a little more amped up this time around, as my motion picture of choice was one for which I’d been veritably frothing in anticipation for after seeing a couple of teasers in the latter months of last year. My intrigue was compounded by the fact that the synopsis was kept shrouded in mystery, the only available details being that it had something to do with espionage and science fiction and that it was a brainchild of Christopher Nolan.
I’m not a fanboy by any stretch, but I’d be lying if I said this attachment didn’t bolster my giddiness as I do agree with sentiments that the man is something of a postmodernist auteur, Memento, The Prestige and Inception being three titles that floored me with their superb visual style and soundscapes, experimental narratives and poignant metaphysical themes. After an understandable delay of one month and nine days beyond the projected release date, it was finally here. As you may have guessed, it’s also something that is so predicated on entering cold, as is the case with most Nolan, that it’s a bastard to review. Oh well, here we go.
John David Washington stars as The Protagonist (yes, that’s his name), a CIA operative who specialises in undercover assignments. One day, his handlers approach him with a directive to contact a clandestine organisation that requires his assistance, the titular word being the only information given to him. Upon his rendezvous with said organisation, The Protagonist is informed that some mysterious technology has fallen into the hands of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). In a nutshell, this technology can reverse entropy (basically, the scientific measure of molecular randomness in a given object. I think), which, theoretically, can make things move backwards through time. Objects, people, etc. Mr Sator is a rather unpleasant man, so there is understandable concern among many parties as to his plans for the aforementioned technology. With the help of old-fashioned British agent Neil (Robert Pattinson), The Protagonist endeavours to find a way of discovering Sator’s intentions and thwarting them if necessary. I literally cannot talk about the plot beyond that.
What I certainly can talk about is how it blew me the f**k away. I’d say my expectations were exceeded, but it’s more accurate to say that they were subverted and discombobulated. It’s one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences I’ve had in my entire life, and it’s evident that this a film that Nolan had been planning since the beginning of his career. The most expensive film he’s ever created at over $200 million, not a dime goes to waste in terms of cinematography, location or narrative realisation (in other words, the SFX is off the charts), it is extraordinarily clever in its exploration of ideas, and I have no trouble admitting that I’ll likely need to see it again to drink in a few things that bewildered me. In contrast to a handful of naysayers I’ve seen doing the rounds, I certainly didn’t believe Tenet to be smug. It’s convoluted yes, but not in a manner that I found pretentious, only enrapturing.
Partially motivated by Nolan’s desire to capture the nostalgic excitement of Bond films without being a direct homage (he apparently broke a long tradition of watching movies that influence him during production), the film traverses the globe by whisking us through England, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Estonia, India and the United States, the mesmerising backdrop of each nation splendiferously framed by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who had previously worked on Interstellar & Dunkirk. It possesses the quintessential Nolan visual polish, a look that can be simultaneously defined by austere sophistication and shocking beauty. Hans Zimmer sadly wasn’t available to bolster this visual feast with an equally rousing score as many had hoped, but fear not, Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson has stepped in with an OST that perfectly compliments proceedings, an intense sonic sprawl that is awesome in both the archaic and colloquial senses of the word.
There has been a degree of criticism directed toward the film for its dispassionate tone, it’s a ”chilly, cerebral film” as Leslie Felperin of The Hollywood Reporter succinctly put it. To be fair, none of the characters reacts to the mechanics of the film’s central conceit in the manner that you or I would, i.e. shock, horror, amazement, mental breakdown and all that jazz, but that genuinely wasn’t a minus point for me. In fact, I really liked and admired it in that capacity. Every player here is ‘on the job’ as it were, The Protagonist and Neil both exuding a confident and clear-headed acumen that actually reminded me somewhat of the poker-faced grit incumbent in many New Hollywood pictures and the works of Mamet. The film is not without emotion, but it’s found within the resonance of implications and spectacle more than it is in interpersonal sentiment, and that’s completely fine by me.
Even if a cogent argument can be made that the characters are more like conduits for concepts that fascinate Nolan rather than relatable, pathos-infused creatures, the performances herein are still engagingly robust. Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat actually thwarts the contention that the film lacks humanity, her individual predicaments tapping effectively into the audience’s anxiety vein even if the stakes are high for everybody. In an anti-Bond fashion, both Debicki and Dimple Kapadia deliver portrayals of compelling female characters who hold their own in a male-dominated environment. Pattinson has confessed to basing his mannerisms on the late, great Christopher Hitchens, conveying a very British and antiquated eliteness that provides several interludes of dry humour. I’m not sure what IndieWire was blathering on about when they consigned the film as a ‘humourless disappointment’ as there is much subtle mirth to be found. As far as shortcomings go, the only silly aspect of the piece was Branagh’s bizarre Russian accent, but he still makes for a satisfying antagonistic element.
The extent of the synopsis written here is the unequivocal maximum that you should know before going in, otherwise the film would be irrevocably ruined for you. Mind-bending surprises are the brick-and-mortar of Tenet, and I’m not unaware that I’m courting controversy when I state that it’s his finest film since Inception. It has well-executed thematic magnitude, eye-popping set pieces, a diligent and devilishly smart approach to concepts (ever the perfectionist, Nolan once again approached theoretical physicist Kip Thorne for script consultancy), and despite a breadth of reviews stating the contrary, it is indeed moving, but more abstractly than his previous work. It is a fantastic bit of cinema, so if you’re reading this and have yet to see it, get your arse down there now.