I saw a trailer for Tenet, the latest headscratcher from director Christopher Nolan, earlier this year since which we’ve had the You Know What and suddenly it feels much more a film suitable for 2020 than it did back then. It’s tricky to review without giving away the glue that holds it together so all I’m saying before the break is that it likely fulfils expectations both for those who enjoy the filmmaker’s world and those who don’t. So if you were baffled by Inception, irritated by Intersteller or put off by his Dark Knight trilogy he hasn’t radically altered course this time. If you loved them then this is exactly for you. Course there is a risk he may become this generation’s Tim Burton replaying earlier successes ad infinitum but it’s not happened yet. Tenet is a wildly ambitious, satisfyingly told knotty tale and if you’ve seen it or want to know more, click below….
Spoilers past this point
The word Tenet is of course the same backwards or forwards (a palindrome) so was well chosen for a film that plays with temporal matters. We open with what at first appears to be a terrorist attack on a Russian opera house- this was the riveting trailer sequence played in full back in February – but then it becomes clear that this is going to be something along the lines of Inception. What transpires is a quest to stop the end of the world which could be caused by inverted weapons which travel back in time. It’s the film’s visual motif that we see various objects rise rather than fall as expected- and this is because the person has already dropped them in the future. It’s sort of time travel in reverse. So whereas Inception had that jaw dropping moment when buildings started folding inwards, here there are fights between people or chases between vehicles when one side is moving in the opposite direction to the other! It is hard to describe- you need to see it to understand how well it works and how it makes your standard hard hitting movie fights work on a whole different level.
As the stakes grow, so does the cast gradually introducing a whole team to back up The Protagonist (yep that’s his name and nobody actually asks him if he’s called Stan or anything) played with cool aplomb by John David Washington. The actor adds a lot to what could be simply an action role with charm and charisma, aided by Robert Pattinson’s mysterious Neil (no it doesn’t sound as cool as The Protagonist!) who is a little eccentric and secretive.
However what really makes this film breathe a little and far more relateable are Elisabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh. The characters of cold hearted Russian oligarch Andrei Sator and his unhappy wife Kat provide the movie with some emotion. Elisabeth Debicki is sensational in a film largely male dominated stealing every scene she’s in with her portrayal of a trophy wife who is being forced to stay with her husband if she wants to see her son. Yet Kat has gusto and heart too and the actor conveys this hidden attribute so well. Kenneth Branagh reminds us how good an actor he is staring threateningly into the camera a long way from Shakespearian proclaiming, here he is menacing to a tee. That their familial troubles could end the world is something that tightens what might just be a straightforward actioner.
Naturally it looks amazing. Christopher Nolan’s ability to craft exciting action sequences is well known and once again he delivers some amazing set pieces here with the back/ forth aspect so well incorporated. Even though we’ve seen close quarters combat in confined spaces or set pieces on motorways or even desert battles before we’ve never seen them quite like this! As ever there is a incidental music throbbing to accompany the action courtesy of Ludwig Goransson and as with Dunkirk the sound mix is superb.
So is it confusing to watch? Well I have to admit there was a point where my intention to carefully keep up got a bit lost mainly because it is so thrilling but also due to a little too much exposition at times. It didn’t help either than some key dialogue is difficult to understand when delivered behind masks (very 2020!). Overall it could do with losing fifteen minutes perhaps but then again I’m not sure what you could cut.
The ending suggests this is only part of a wider story though, the Dark Knight aside, Nolan doesn’t normally do sequels. The film is a concentrated watch but rewarding all the same and undoubtedly a second watch would clarify any loose ends. Tenet is intense and challenging for sure but if you go with it you won’t see a more exciting film in a long while.
Incidentally there was trailer beforehand for the new James Bond which seemed OK till after watching Tenet when you realised Mr B is definitely heading backwards!