After 10 films, countless box office dollars and a permanent place within the cultural consciousness, it is safe to say Christopher Nolan is one of very few directors to be a brand onto himself. Capable of securing mega sized budgets for what are always fiercely original stories, his films inspire a devotion and commitment from fans that is usually reserved for the next big Marvel film or Zack Snyder noisefest. Yet even the most casual of fans could ultimately tell you the two things that inspire him most. One is an inherent fascination with time. Whether that be used thematically or structurally, Nolan is as excited by that temporal movement as Tarantino is by feet. Each of his films analyses the way time can alter, damage and challenge our humanity. Often this is done via the use of editing or structure, such as Dunkirk’s collapsing timelines or even the flashback heavy Batman Begins. You get the sense that some sort of childhood calamity befell his favourite watch or that he was late to a ‘hot ticket’ party, to inspire such investigative insight into time’s painful grip on all of us. (Although I’m well aware he doesn’t come across as the man whom ‘hot ticket’ party was written for). The second fixation also seems rooted in childhood, and that is his desperation to direct a Bond film. Frequently citing his love of the bold brash James Bond flicks he soaked up in his youth (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a particular fave of his), their influence permeates his work at almost every turn. Sometimes it is surface level such as the sharply suited leads of Inception or the in camera stuntwork of the Batman trilogy, oftentimes it is his love affair of big storytelling, wide canvases and the ‘cinema experience’. The Bond films are nothing if not meant for the big screen. I say all this because his eleventh film, Tenet, is the pinnacle of these two obsessions. An espionage film with multiple locations, sweeping action and time literally being the protagonist of the story. It is apt too that a film that represents the nexus of his career focuses should showcase both his best and worst impulses as a director.
Unsurprisingly it is hard to describe much of Tenet without spoiling things, although this time the added soupcon is the sheer density of the time mechanics at work here means I cannot fathom all of what it says anyway, but largely it involves John David Washington’s CIA agent. Nameless (he is literally known as The Protagonist- a frustrating representation of his lack of character depth) yet clearly highly skilled at what he does. We open with him joining a large scale siege of an Opera House after terrorists take it hostage. However he is there for other more secretive reasons, ones that snowball to something greater than he could have imagined when he witnesses a bullet seemingly shooting in reverse. It is a breathless prologue, shot with palpable immediacy and purposeful confusion. Soon after things go awry for our lead, involving some nasty dental surgery, and menacing bad guys. It is all designed to excite, involve and set the stage for what comes next, even if you don’t quite know how. Not unlike a James Bond prologue. When the title flashes up you almost half expect it to be followed by a lengthy title sequence set to a rhythmic pop song, albeit this time Nolan saves it for the end (yes Tenet actually has an actual end credits song-what is this the 90s?). Soon enough characters are spouting reams of exposition, plans are set in motion, vague allusions are made to the end of the world and we’re off. Tenet is a globe-spanning film if ever there was one, launching us from Estonia, to Russia, to England via Vietnam and the Amalfi Coast. It is as wide a canvas as you could possibly imagine.
“Nolan is as excited by temporal movement as Tarantino is by feet..”
It requires this large canvas to reinforce the gravity of the stakes at play, nothing less than World War 3 as Clemence Posey’s Doctor Exposition kindly reminds us in an early segment of the film which refreshingly gives everything away without the need to hold details back for the sake of tension. Basically someone has figured out how to reverse the entropy of objects and even people, meaning objects perceived going forward in time like us are in actual fact reversed. To them or it they’re going forward but to us it appears that it is going backwards. A technical detail that you really have to open your mind to if you have any hope of following the events of the third act. This “someone” may or may not be Kenneth Branagh’s highly Russian and highly evil Sator. It is down to The Protagonist to manipulate his way into Sator’s midst, with the help of a diverse ensemble led by Robert Pattinson’s immensely charming yet generically named Neil. We are used to a Nolan film being heavy on ideas not seen before so exposition is always a given. Although he has figured out a way to develop it into the forward (or is that backwards) movement of the plot more seamlessly than Inception, the writing isn’t always as tight in the dialogue itself to make it sound palatable to the ear. Posey’s Dr Exposition kindly reminds us to “try not to understand it, instead feel it.” A direct wink to the audience akin to a Deadpool movie than a serious summer blockbuster. Tenet does work better though if you adopt this mindset, as although there are explanations to be found and multiple viewings (I’ve seen it twice so far) allow the mechanics to click far more soundly, it is in the sensory experience that the real treats are to be found.
Technically this is possibly one of Christopher Nolan’s best films. Every aspect has been pulled together to the highest standard. Once again favouring in camera effects work, augmented of course with some smartly used CGI, and stunt performances of the highest calibre. The action may not carry the sort of jaw dropping moments of say the revolving corridor fight in Inception or the truck flip in Dark Knight, yet it is muscular, smoothly shot and tangibly real. A plane sequence and subsequent heist is by far the standout moment. The third act especially has a lot of fun with the inversing mechanics, yet never opts to be over the top with it. A hand to hand fight in reverse or a car flipping backwards may seem like low key but the impact is greater felt purely because it is so specific in detail and focus. All shot by frequent collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema with a clarity and clear sense of geography (drone and helicopter shots are everywhere). The IMAX photography also continues to be best in class. Kudos must also go to editor Jennifer Lame who must’ve baulked at the sheer challenge at a plot that goes backwards, forwards and backwards again, sometimes all at the same time. And what Nolan film wouldn’t be complete without the grand finale operating in different spaces at the same time, although this time it involves spaces and times too. One notable change from previous endeavours is the lack of Hans Zimmer on scoring duties, replaced instead with Black Panther composer Ludwig Goransson. Any fears of Zimmer’s epicness being lost are unfounded once Goransson’s booming pulsating score kicks in, combining all manner of odd sounds to depict the distortion of the inversing effects. It makes one facet of an all consuming sound mix. Nolan likes his films LOUD. Perhaps in some strange way it is a reflection of the feeling he felt as a kid watching the big summer films, the noise overwhelming all his senses. Now as a director he yearns to bring that feeling to light for us grown adults. Some might complain of dialogue being hard to hear, but I think that more speaks to the cinema sound mix than the actual mix. My first viewing in 70mm Imax was perfectly balanced whereas a multiplex watch lessened the impact somewhat. Still the visceral feeling it inspires is hard to copy.
Feelings have been mentioned a lot here, and this is the one area that Tenet loses me on. Previous films in this brand we call Nolan, have always had a pertinent emotional core. Yet despite Dr Exposition’s plea for us to “feel it” there is a curious lack of emotion within. We’re meant to find it with Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat. Married to the villainous Sator, she is abused and submitted to the lowest levels. The statuesque (seriously she is over 6ft tall) glacially featured Debicki blesses Kat with a heartbreaking detachment, a woman so beaten down that every attempt to fight back is taken with tiny victories. Yet Kat continues in the tradition of underwritten Nolan women. Largely there as a plot mechanism to move the pieces where they need to be, and usually she becomes merely a damsel in distress. What character is found is found within her performance. It certainly doesn’t help that the whole driving force of her plight surrounds her son, whom is kept painfully out of reach by her pig of a husband, yet we never spend any time with them as a mother/child connection. So we never truly feel the desperation of her need to get him back. This wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t also tied to the Protagonist’s stake in the game. He seems driven to protect them both but without knowing more of his internal life or motivations, or even a face to the kid himself (I literally cannot picture what he looks like) we as the audience have no investment. It is not the fault of Washington who is a formidable lead, charisma through the roof and a performer gifted with highly expressive eyes, rather the drive to make him a blank slate to lay the plot foundations on. If Bond is the touchstone here then he is none more Bond like (quick with a quip, suited and booted etc), but the Daniel Craig era has shown that there can be more under the hood if you shone a spotlight on it. In fact the emotional connection I yearned to feel actually came via Robert Pattinson. Easily one of the most exciting actors working today, he is clearly having a ball with the loquacious chilled Neil, but managing to lace in an undercurrent of sadness come the final scenes. A late film reveal is tied closely with him and hits quite hard. But I couldn’t help but desire more. You can be charmed as much as you can by clever ideas, original thoughts and epic storytelling, without the heart though it only partly connects. You cannot fault those performances though, another rich ensemble elevating the often scattershot writing. Shoutouts to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s unexpected appearance and to Branagh’s forceful portrayal of a wife beater, the accent may waver but he has a calmness underlying the rage which prevents it tipping over into ham. A quiet scene of intimidation with Debicki works far better than an oddly pitched mid film attack that leans unnaturally into flat out violence.
Despite those flaws, flaws seen elsewhere in Nolan’s work, Tenet is still fiercely original exciting filmmaking from a director at the peak of his powers. Some sequences are in the top echelon of things he has created. You always know walking into one of his films that you’ll witness things you’ve never seen before, and Tenet is rare in that none of it feels at all compromised. I adore his cinema, weaknesses and all, for being unafraid to be bold. It’ll be nice to see him reach for something smaller next, intimate and character based. Even though in his heart he yearns for that immeasurable excitement only the big screen and big action can reveal. There is a reason time is a fixation of his, as time usually allows even his weaker films to gain stature over the years, and I think Tenet may gain the most from this dichotomy. A second viewing already illuminated much more when the plot complexities were less in the mind. What is clear is James Bond may have influenced him but Christopher Nolan has moved on from such simplicities. Cinema for the mind, body and soul, I just hope in future he remembers the last part is most important.
Verdict: Audacious, exciting and very much on brand. A mixture of truly breathtaking cinema and coldly detached plot momentum. Deserved to be seen on the biggest and loudest screen possible, just don’t expect to understand it all. Don’t try to understand it, just feel it.