tue 22/09/2020

Tenet review - a heady delight | reviews, news & interviews

Tenet review - a heady delight

Tenet review - a heady delight

Nolan's ambitious high concept head-spinner will have you going back for more

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson as masters of time and space

Go back over Christopher Nolan’s films and count the clocks. He has an obsession that would give a horologist a run for his money. Time is a continual motif of his body of work and it finds its zenith in his latest work Tenet.

Go back over Christopher Nolan’s films and count the clocks. He has an obsession that would give a horologist a run for his money. Time is a continual motif of his body of work and it finds its zenith in his latest work Tenet. Beneath the highly polished spy-thriller aesthetic lies a head-spinning, temporally warped plot, laced with concepts and conceits that will delight and baffle in equal measures. 

At the heart of the story is The Protagonist (John David Washington, pictured below with Robert Pattinson), a highly trained agent who stumbles upon a time-bending technology controlled by a Russian arms dealer, Andrei Stor (Kenneth Branagh), who wants to trigger a time-driven cold war. It’s up to un-heroically named British spy, Neil (Robert Pattinson with a gleefully over-the-top RP accent), an art dealer called Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and the enigmatically named hero, to stop the clock from not ticking. 

This is a film where time flows in all directions. An opening sequence, set in the Taras Shevchenko opera house in Kiev, knocks the wind from your lungs and teases the time-twisting effects that saturate the final sequence. The film is full of breathless car chases that slip forwards and backwards simultaneously, with the intricate plotting all set against a globe-trotting array of backdrops ranging from Mumbai to the Amalfi Coast, via Tallinn and Oslo. This is cinema driven by an ambition to stagger and impress. And it does.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson go back and forth in time

Tonally it’s a marriage of Interstellar and Inception, and seeks to deliver on previously explored concepts of fatalism, freewill and the nature of reality, while still managing to deliver yet new levels of visual spectacle and action. Like many of Nolan’s films, it’s jargon heavy, and full of doohickey McGuffin tech. Terms like "Temporal pincers" get used, there’s a Dummies Guide to Entropy dialogue, and also a brief schooling in The Grandfather Paradox. It perplexes, but let it wash over you, and save the details for an inevitable round two viewing. 

Each component clicks with the next like a well-constructed timepiece. Whether it’s the pristine camera work of regular collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema, the sharp costume design by Jeffrey Kurland, or the temporally twisted sonics of Ludwig Göransson’s score (Hans Zimmer was busy with Denis Villeneuve’s Dune), Nolan hones the elements to produce a film drenched with giddying concepts, and on a scale comparable to no other director. 

As is often the case with Nolan, this methodical approach can feel cold. All that polish leaves little room for emotional pathos. At times the characters feel like cogs, lacking the necessary emotional drive, and becoming little more than archetypes present to deliver ideas rather than convey depth. 

Still, Tenet remains a blissfully ambitious sci-fi, exceptionally crafted, and rich with ideas. Nolan remains unique in the cinematic landscape, being both Kubrick’s and Hitchcock’s heir apparent.

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