* * * 1/2
Christopher Nolan’s new globetrotting espionage action epic may be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen; afterwards I craved silence, or at least birdsong. It’s also almost self-parodically convoluted. Most of the dialogue is rendered indecipherable by the seat-shaking score and sound design; the end result is essentially incomprehensible, such that I’m not going to attempt any plot summary, as, frankly, on a story level, I have no idea what I’ve just seen.
Which is not to say that Tenet is unenjoyable; it’s totally enjoyable, as a cinema spectacle and an aesthetic indulgence. It may sound (at times) uncomfortably overwhelming, but it looks great. Essentially Nolan’s take on a Bond film, Tenet hops all over the world – comically so in its first half, as characters continue dialogue from one scene to the next while seeming to leap continents. As with the best Bond, Europe is the film’s main playground, with Oslo at its centre. (I believe the next actual Bond, No Time To Die, also shot in Norway, so we’ll see how much actual overlap there may be when that opens in November). It really is the right film for those of us denied travel: it seems to go everywhere.
Of the Bonds, it riffs (and lifts) most from Thunderball, especially in the central relationship between Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh; he’s a world-class Russian (or something) villain, she’s the trophy wife he won’t let go, and at one point, just like in Thunderball, it looks like he’s going to torture her in her cabin on his gorgeous motor yacht. Their relationship is the only ‘real’ one in the film, and for many people – myself included – Debicki will be the only interesting character. Thankfully, she’s in it a lot, and her performance, grounded in emotion denied the other characters, locates at least her scenes in a realm approaching conventional drama.
The rest – as incomprehensibly but enthusiastically declaimed by John David Washington and Robert Pattinson – is techno-babble mumbo-jumbo, but it’s written and delivered with integrity, even if we can’t decipher it. Even more so than Inception, Nolan’s original screenplay for Tenet seems designed to provoke after-movie discussion and repeated viewing to ‘crack it’. This style of story-telling has earned a modern moniker, ‘mystery box’, and it’s not for everyone, and certainly not for people who like clean narratives. I have little doubt the story pieces in Tenet add up to something amazing once you see it multiple times and put it together like a jigsaw puzzle, but there’s no way to ‘get it’ as it unspools: not at this volume, anyway. Tenet is the film that distributors around the world are counting on to get us back into cinemas, and it is wholly deserving of the biggest possible screen, if not the loudest possible sound system.