Reviewed: To the Wonder and Cloud Atlas

We are the world.

To the Wonder (12A); Cloud Atlas (15)
dir: Terrence Malick; dir: Tom Tykwer
Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

While watching To the Wonder, it’s important to determine whether the film is artistically and intellectually derelict or if its director, Terrence Malick, responsible for a handful of modern masterpieces, simply has further to fall than most. In the spirit of this wishy-washy movie, I’d say it’s a bit of both. The Malick ingredients are all here: soaring choral music with invocations of divinity, the emphasis on nature and light, lots of elliptical editing and fragmented narration. But when one discontented character observes wanly: “There’s something missing,” it’s as though the movie is giving itself a three-word review.

While the viewer grapples with a loss of faith in the director’s methods, the film touches on other kinds of crises. Marina (Olga Kurylenko) has left Paris to live in Oklahoma with her lover, Neil (Ben Affleck). Not that she has forsaken her inner Amélie; all the adults here are like children, gazing at the sky or engrossed in play – spinning one another around in the street, crawling through leaves, listening to each other’s heartbeats. No one expects characters in a Malick film to be shown unblocking the toilet but this insistence on the whimsical infantilises them.

Eventually Marina realises she has fallen out of love with love and seeks the counsel of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is himself experiencing a crisis of faith. “How has hate come to take the place of love?” Marina sighs in one of the breathy voiceovers that replace dialogue so fully that no one ever exchanges more than an occasional word. In this context, we feel grateful for anything tangible, such as when Neil and Marina’s blissful courtship gives way to tantrums, or when Neil angrily smashes his jeep’s wing mirror. (It’s restored to its original state a second later – presumably divine intervention rather than a boring old continuity error.)

Malick’s storytelling style has often resembled a slideshow of snapshots held together by a cumulative emotional potency. But characterisation and meaning are so opaque in To the Wonder that the film never feels any deeper than a photo-strip love story, albeit one published in American Cinematographer magazine rather than Jackie or My Guy. It was to be expected that Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, would conjure up rhapsodic imagery: the sun flashing stroboscopically through the spoke-like legs of a cartwheeling child; a prisoner’s thick, tattooed forearms draped on the sill of his cell like dozing boa constrictors. Even here, though, Malick is not immune to the banal. The fingertips-trailing-through-wheatfields shot was already a cliché when Ridley Scott used it in Gladiator. The swooping Steadicam that felt fresh in Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, has hardened into mannerism.

Something has happened to this director’s work since he lost interest in the friction between sound and image from his first three films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), where the dislocated narration went against the grain of the lyrical photography. With it has gone the tautness of his vision. A film doesn’t necessarily need solidity but in the absence of momentum it does require philosophical weight, and To the Wonder is as ephemeral as dandelion spores.

What a rum state of affairs it is when a new Malick picture can be eclipsed in the audacity stakes by a movie from the siblings responsible for the Matrix trilogy. Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski have divvied up the directing duties with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) on their adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel Cloud Atlas. It’s far from perfect but then a certain amount of unevenness is to be expected from a three-hour film that intercuts six stories whose settings include the South Pacific in the mid-19th century, 1970s San Francisco and a savage island civilisation 106 winters after the Fall, possibly on a Thursday. Cloud Atlas spans genres, too, incorporating science fiction, espionage, farce and several love stories; the casting is no less elastic. Tom Hanks takes on six parts, including a nuclear-power whistleblower, an Irish thug-turned-novelist who hurls a critic off a rooftop and an actor starring as a fictionalised version of a professor played earlier in the movie by Jim Broadbent. (Do keep up at the back.) Hugh Grant’s roles include a curlyhaired, runny-eyed Cockney gangster and a futuristic warlord; Ben Whishaw and Hugo Weaving get to hop back and forth across the gender divide. The whole shebang is like fancy-dress day at Rada.

It isn’t clear that this mix-and-match casting adds up to anything more than a guessing game for the audience à la The List of Adrian Messenger (where Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum appeared in disguise). Certainly the intended message that these are the same souls at different phases of evolution gets obscured. The rapid movement between the different plot lines emphasises parallels between characters divided by oceans and millennia even as it risks turning Cloud Atlas into a restless trailer for itself. But the sweep of the film, its naive charm and compassion, is intoxicating. I wasn’t bored.

A still from "Cloud Atlas".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle