After months of being pushed back, it feels surreal that I have finally seen Tenet – but I did finally get a ticket to what has turned into the summer of 2020’s one and only blockbuster, and there’s a lot to break down.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan in his first film since 2017’s Dunkirk, and starring a stellar line up of actors, Tenet is a wildly ambitious film that follows a protagonist as he is introduced to a world where time can travel not only forwards, but backwards.
I want to preface this entire article by saying that I saw this at my local independent cinema, where only alternate rows in screens are open and everything feels very safe. If you are thinking of seeing this, then please do research and plan ahead on how to do so safely during this ongoing pandemic; wear a mask, and be respectful of everyone else!
Where many studios were choosing to release new films straight to video on demand at home, or postponing to 2021, Nolan has been, from the start of the pandemic, insistent that this film get it’s proper cinematic release as intended: I can see why. To experience Tenet on the big screen is a marvel, that is heightened even more so by being for many, the first big screen experience post lockdown.
I think you can tell that Nolan’s previous film was a war drama, inspired by true events. It’s almost as if he wrapped on Dunkirk, then did a one eighty turn to create something exactly opposite to it: a time travelling espionage thriller is pretty much as far away as you can get from World War II.
This is a film that does take some brain power to fully understand what is happening. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all – in fact, I like when a film challenges and engages you, even after the credits have rolled. However, I do think Tenet could potentially be guilty of having a simple concept, overcomplicated by layering as a guise to make it more complex. On paper, an inverted direction of time existing sounds a lot more simple than the execution in the film suggests. This execution is not aided by the sound mixing, which in places made the essential dialogue unclear too.
It is easy to follow along and get the gist of what is happening. The story is paced well, opening and ending with huge, tense sequences; and there are multiple stand out sequences throughout. The kitchen fight (hello cheese grater), the two person corridor fight and the breathe holding moment all had me on the edge of my seat. It’s a cinematic delight, nothing short of it.
Unfortunately, and through no fault of the actors, there is little to connect the audience to the characters. Luckily for Nolan, John David Washington is very charismatic; and half the audience would easily die for both Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki. It’s down to the actor’s performances that I personally felt connection to them, as opposed to the character’s writing.
Regardless, Tenet as a whole is some Big Proper Filmmaking.
John David Washington’s starring role is brilliant. Known only as ‘The Protagonist’, we know nothing about this man except his dedication to his role. From the second the camera captures him, we are invested in him, and root for him. It’s awe-inspiring work from JDW and Nolan, and I cannot fathom it as an actor myself. This man is about to take on the world.
His partner is Neil, played by the great Robert Pattinson, who is just divine. He plays his British secret agent role with a professional, but almost carefree nuance and it makes watching him so engaging from the second he appears on screen. Each and every time I see Pattinson on screen I feel so much joy about having watched his career progression first hand – he is a technically brilliant actor, and I someone I am sure will go down as one of the greats of our generation. Neil is an effective character to have as The Protagonist’s second in command, complementing him gorgeously and creating a strong duo, whilst leaving him very much the starring role.
A central character in the story is Kat, played by the ever astonishing Elizabeth Debicki. If I’m being honest, I think Debicki does wonders to a very basic role. I am tired that of strong women onscreen being defined by their trauma: in this case, an abusive relationship. While it does pan out better in Tenet than it does in other media, I wish that Debicki could have been strong without being a victim.
While Kat is frankly, a character I wish I could grow up to be like, and there are two other smart, strong and powerful women in the film, it is worth noting that Tenet does not come close to passing the simple Bechdel Test (wherein two female characters must have at least one conversation with each other that is not about a man). The bar is so low, and yet, major films continue to fail to meet it.
Debicki’s counterpart is Kenneth Branagh, who is really very good as Russian bad guy Andrei Sator. He scared me, genuinely, and his accent was spot on – even in inverted scenes, when he was required to speak his lines backwards, in a Russian accent. I am sort of sick of the villain’s motivation being the whole “If I can’t have it then nobody can” thing – it’s an interesting concept to have on an omnicidal scale, but I do think it’s a pretty easy motive.
Famed Bollywood actor Dimple Kapadia transitions to Hollywood as Priya, the seemingly innocent wife to an arms dealer who actually holds a lot more power than you would think. Kapadia has such a strong onscreen presence, and captures the audience’s attention easily even in her scenes with Washington – not an easy feat.
To my surprise, Aaron Taylor-Johnson makes an appearance as charming yet focused operative Ives; Himish Patel appears with an American accent to boot; and Clémence Poésy is flawlessly, British upper class. Based on her presence in the trailer, I was expecting Poésy to have more of a role in the film than the one scene she is in. She exists for no other reason than to let us know what’s happening, then disappears – which I guess, we can’t fault for, but surely there was an opportunity for the cool female scientist to reappear later in the film?
Michael Caine is also barely squeezed in, and didn’t really seem to serve much purpose if I’m being honest. It felt like shoehorning in an unnecessary role to accommodate a well known actor.
Tenet is Nolan’s third collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and it is working a charm. Together, they paint a fantastic world that’s grounded in realism, and it’s gorogeous. There is one scene with such a gorgeous blue/ red colour to it that is just so stunning to look at, though it’s standalone. I would have liked for that colour theme to be tied a little more to the entire film: indeed, it does crop up a few times throughout, though never as intensely as in that one specific scene.
What astonishes me, is that Tenet contains solely practical effects, with no green screens involved in production. This is especially incredible in the ‘inversion sequences’, which Nolan carried out by shooting each scene twice: one in normal time, then repeating with the actors doing everything backward. Which is…. mind-blowing?
Even more unfathomable are the car stunts performed in reverse. There is a car chase along a highway, involving cars in both forward and inverted time that is just… wild. The team included Jim Wilkey, who was behind the flipped Joker truck in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
And if that weren’t enough, Nolan even crashed an actual plane to avoid computer animation.
To elaborate on the fight scenes: they’re just… unparalleled. Without giving two much away, the film contains fights shown in both linear time and reverse, sometimes simultaneously. They are the work of fight coordinator Jackson Spidell, who is becoming somewhat of a stunt legend. I feel as if in the past few years, stunt work in film and television is advancing and creating such breathtaking work that it in many cases steals the show: it does in Tenet. I will be thinking about that hallway sequence for such a long time.
It’s edited by Jennifer Lame, who is best known for her work on Manchester by the Sea and Hereditary. While the editing in action sequences, and when executing the inverted scenes, is done beautifully, I did feel in more casual moments of the film the cuts between scenes were very choppy. I’m not saying I need extensive establishing shots for every new location (as there are many, many locations in Tenet), but it does require major focus to keep track of where and when the characters are in each new scene, particularly in the first half of the film.
One of my absolute favourite elements to Tenet is the costumes. They are exquisite, and designed by Jeffrey Kurland, who first collaborated with Nolan on Inception back in 2010. The suits are pristine, Debicki’s two piece skirt suits are divine, the ‘casual’ wear is astonishing – and Robert Pattinson in an intricately folded skinny scarf saved me. I’m not usually one to really obsess over costume to this extent, but I just adored it.
There are a ton of theories already coming out regarding the film, and to be perfectly honest, I haven’t bought into any of them yet. I personally don’t see enough evidence within in the film, but do enjoy pondering on a good theory so hit me up with any you have.
In many ways, Tenet is an exact representation of what I love to see in film: bold, ambitious storylines executed in exciting ways, that doesn’t try to explain itself to an audience. Indeed, that is what I love about many of Nolan’s films. But, if we are talking strictly in comparison to his past films, then I don’t think it’s up there alongside Inception or Interstellar: and I think that is very much down to the lack of emotional connection. If it had had that, I am sure I would have adored this film enough to overlook any plot over-complication or confusion.
Tenet is interesting. As I scribbled down in my notes whilst watching: “I’m not 100% sure what’s going on but I am TENSE”. I do not envy Christopher Nolan for setting such a high standard for himself with his past films, and I think Tenet is partly only let down some because of that back catalogue.
All in all, it’s a fantastic, cinematic experience, that should be seen by everyone. I know that despite the faults I see in it, I’d be up for watching it a couple more times.
Tenet is in cinemas now