TENET - Reviewed By Dj Murphy




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.

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!

From rebooting Batman to inverting reality in Inception, British filmmaker Christopher Nolan has spent the last two decades cutting his teeth on audacious action thrillers for an adult audience. And a theme running through his stellar filmography is the concept of time, from the disjointed puzzle pieces of Memento to the intersecting narratives of Dunkirk.

Tenet, in many ways, is the culmination of his career to date. Once again, Nolan is toying with time, in another slick sci-fi action hybrid that features stoic men in sharp suits, surrounded by frigid sets and framed by vast IMAX camerawork. 

But unlike Inception, Interstellar or even Insomnia, Tenet doesn't stick the landing. It overshoots, missing the target by some distance. Dizzying, deafening, acrobatic and asinine; Tenet is a compelling contradiction that is both the best and worst of Nolan's tendencies thrust together into a two-and-a-half hour mess of ideas.

The film is about a secret agent played by John David Washington. After a pulsating prologue that sees Washington's character – known only as 'The Protagonist' – working undercover during a terrorist incident in Kiev, we learn that Tenet is about objects from the future (described as the 'detritus of a coming war') that are somehow travelling backward through time. 

We're assured that this concept is rooted in legit physics and is not at all nonsense, but I'm here to tell you that you're better off just accepting a lot of what Tenet puts out there at face value. Don't think about it, just settle in for the ride – after all, 'ignorance is our ammunition', as one character wryly puts it.

From here, the plot spirals outward to encompass a forged painting, some stolen plutonium, a crashed 747, a Norwegian free port, a foppish British spy (Robert Pattinson) and a sadistic Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) and his long-suffering wife (Elizabeth Debicki). 

By the time we've reached the explosive crescendo, Nolan's film (he also penned the screenplay) has some serious mileage on it. Tenet is not a short film by any means, and there's a lot crammed into its 150-minute runtime. Action aplenty, the film bounces from London to Mumbai, Italy and Oslo – but the connective tissue tying the plot together gets somewhat lost amongst the cumbersome science and the unwieldy exposition. 

It definitely doesn't help matters that so much of Nolan's expository dialogue gets lost in the sound mix. Important ideas or developments are often drowned out by Ludwig Göransson's pounding score, making it even harder to follow what audacious act of daring-do that The Protagonist and Pattinson are up to next. 

That said, there's a lot to love about Tenet. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is moody and rich in texture; Göransson's score is too loud, but engrossing and exciting at the same time. Washington and Pattinson are a compelling lead duo, even if the script doesn't service their characters with the same emotional heft that Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConaughey enjoyed in Inception and Interstellar. 

Tenet isn't lacking for originality. It feels of a piece with Nolan's other work – the natural evolution of a filmmaker who has always favoured spectacle over sparsity. But what it does lack is a gentle guiding hand to steer its captain back to calmer seas that are easier for audiences to navigate. There's a five-star film in there somewhere, crying to get out, but on this occasion Nolan's ambition has come at the cost of adhesion.

The Verdict: 6/10
Don't try to understand it; just feel it. Christopher Nolan's latest is a feast for the eyes, punishing on the ears and a workout for your mind. It doesn't 'click' together in the same way Dunkirk or Inception did; it's large and unwieldy, a gargantuan undertaking that is dense and inaccessible. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, I guess so. I definitely admire it. But did I understand it? I'm not so sure.

Comments