Tenet

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Tenet
"Whether you ultimately like the end result or not, you'll definitely feel something, even if it's only the booming bass of Richard King's sound design and Ludwig Göransson's score rattling your seat at key moments." | Photo: Warner Bros Pictures

"Does your head hurt yet?" The Protagonist (John David Washington) is asked somewhere at what would be, if time were not getting bent out of shape by writer/director Christopher Nolan, the middle of this spy thriller. Earlier he is told, "Don't try to understand it - just feel it." Both the question and piece of advice feel like Nolan checking in with us, a more eloquent filmmaker's version of: "R U OK, hun?"

As it happens, the "feel" of the thing begins even before the film starts. After all, you don't need me to remind you that we're in the middle of a pandemic and that, whether Nolan likes it or not, his film - pushed back from a July release date and reaching Europe before a US release next month - has become an odd sort of talisman for a beleaguered industry, now holding its breath to see whether we feel like masking up and going back to a socially-distanced cinema or not. That, of course, is a matter for each person - and there will be world enough and time to see this on the small screen later if you prefer - but Nolan has most certainly decided to go big rather than stay at home. And, whether you ultimately like the end result or not, you'll definitely feel something, even if it's only the booming bass of Richard King's sound design and Ludwig Göransson's score rattling your seat at key moments.

Copy picture

Back to the beginning, if you want to call it that, and the Protagonist, who after a test of commitment that involves the first of many slickly rendered, fluid action sequences that is a lot less inconsequential than it might first appear, finds himself on a mission to try to prevent World War III breaking out. The enemy is a complexity that I'll leave Nolan to introduce to you, but its chief trick is time inversion, a looping effect that, among other things, allows bullets to slam back into the guns that have already shot them and buildings to be reconstructed with the touch of a tank shell. These trappings are the sort of bread and butter conundrums that Nolan loves to dish up to his audiences - and make for intricate fight scenes in which time flows in more than one direction at once - but the hook of the film is its spy thriller heart, as our Protagonist and his suave but acerbic British oppo Neil (Robert Pattinson) try to stop Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Brannagh, leaning into the accent in Shakespearean fashion), from destroying life as we know it with the aid of a mysterious thingamabob.

All good spy thrillers need a woman, of course, and here it is Elizabeth Debicki stepping up to the plate as the elegant and emotionally abused wife of Andre, who - in a manoeuvre that has graced a thousand films - can't leave him because of their son. The Protagonist, of course, has a soft spot for her although this particular element could do with a lot more heat than Nolan gives it, as though even he knows he's included a cliche and hopes that by handling it more coolly than is usual, nobody will notice.

Much here is macguffin material, arranged neatly to keep things moving. And when Washington's man is on the move, we feel the energy of it. Jennifer Lame has previously worked on classy and intimate affairs like Manchester By The Sea and Marriage Story, but she proves adept at handling Nolan's big and blowsy action scenes, inserting pauses in just the right places to ensure we don't miss key moments in what prove to be increasingly complex sequences as the time loops become, well, increasingly loopy.

The dialogue tends towards the gnomic - and is often muffled by the rest of the general mayhem - serving largely just to impress upon us that this is not simply a spy thriller but has a temporal element as well, while also, no doubt, holding a temptation for Nolan fans to want to go back and watch this palindromic romp all over again. Almost as an aside, there are some lovely sideswipes at the British class system, with Michael Caine in a cameo role, getting the best of them.

Repeated viewings may well offer additional cryptic pleasures but even if they don't, there's a lot to be said for just holding on to your hat and enjoying the visual ride.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2020
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A CIA agent is recruited to save the world.

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