Cloud Atlas: Multiple Stories and Time Frames

“The pressure that Lana, Andy and Tom put on themselves to see this project through was equaled by the faith they had in us as actors,” notes Tom Hanks. “It really was extraordinary the way they allowed us to follow our instincts. This shoot went by in the wink of an eye because every day we were embarking on an exciting new sequence and I was part of a great team—a genuinely unified ensemble.”

“Having each of us play multiple parts was an inspired idea,” proclaims Jim Broadbent. “There have been various star vehicles before where the leading actor played several parts, but nothing like this. It’s quite unique, and so well suited for this story, where everything is related and the energy from one current charges the next until you have this beautiful momentum, one exciting moment after another.”

Because of the way production was synchronized around dual hubs, actors spent the shoot segueing from one set to another—often from one country to another—with stops between for makeup and wardrobe that would sometimes transform them so dramatically that they were able to momentarily pass amongst one another unrecognized.

Likening the experience to a fun and festive Cirque du Soleil atmosphere, with the cast leaping bravely from one trapeze to another, Susan Sarandon recalls, “There was a day I looked into the mirror and, for a second, couldn’t see myself, which was the first time in my career that has ever happened. It was a startling experience. But it’s just one of the ways cinema gives you the chance to take on the perspective of a character you thought you had nothing in common with and, in the process, see how alike we are, and how little time and age and color and gender really mean in the scheme of things.”

By all accounts, it was a performer’s dream. Says Ben Whishaw, “It reminded me of why I became an actor in the first place, and I think that was true for all of us. Most of the time, no matter the role, you look more or less like yourself, but the instinct is always there to be transformative and this has been an amazing opportunity for that. It’s been really liberating.”

For some, perhaps more liberating than others. As Hugh Grant dryly notes, “I was quite intrigued by the story, which is brilliant, but I would have done it just for the chance to be a cannibal chief who does a lot of pillaging and throat-slitting. There wasn’t much throat-slitting in ‘Sense and Sensibility.'”

“Cloud Atlas” begins in 1849 in the South Pacific, then moves to (and begins in) 1936 Scotland, 1973 San Francisco, 2012 England, 2144 Neo Seou, and 2346 Hawaii.

By introducing all its narrative threads at once and then rhythmically shifting focus from one to another throughout, the film propels audiences simultaneously down six parallel tracks that are experienced as one. Causes and effects immediately reveal their synchronicity and links between characters and times are vividly realized as each piece builds toward a common end.

1849, The South Pacific
Jim Sturgess portrays idealistic young San Francisco attorney Adam Ewing, who has traveled to the Pacific Islands to conduct business with sanctimonious plantation owner Rev. Horrox, played by Hugh Grant. While there, Ewing witnesses the savage flogging of one of Horrox’s slaves, Autua, played by David Gyasi, who locks eyes with him in the moment as if embracing a kindred spirit. Later, when Autua stows away in the lawyer’s cabin on his voyage home, Ewing is forced to choose between his professional obligations and his growing moral convictions—a decision that will reverberate through the centuries in ways he cannot imagine.

“There’s a moment when Autua asks Ewing to either save him or to take his life, so the stakes are quite high,” Gyasi recounts.

“It’s the first time Ewing has seen the horror of the slave trade,” adds Sturgess, marking the scene that sets off a series of recurring examples of how people strive through the ages to overcome oppression of one form or another. “It was a time when it was easy for a man like him to get caught up in the mentality of people like Horrox, who believed they were at the top of the ladder of civilization, but he has the innate feeling that something is very wrong with this. And then, suddenly there’s a chance for him to do something about it.”

At the same time, Ewing’s other shipmate, the malignant opportunist Dr. Goose, played by Tom Hanks, is pursuing a very different course.

Filling out the ever-shifting ensemble, Jim Broadbent appears in this timeframe as the ultimately pragmatic ship captain Molyneux; Susan Sarandon as Horrox’s suppressed, but seething wife; Keith David as the Maori slave Kupaka, who silently endures; Halle Berry as another Maori working the plantation; Hugo Weaving as Ewing’s entitled father-in-law, Haskell Moore; and Doona Bae, in western guise, as Ewing’s beloved wife, Tilda.

1936, Scotland
Ben Whishaw is the roguishly charming, brash, and immensely gifted young composer Robert Frobisher. Disinherited by his father and finding all doors closed to him in England, Frobisher takes leave of his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, played by James D’Arcy, and sets out to make a name for himself on his own terms. Apprenticing himself to Vyvyan Ayrs, a renowned composer past his creative prime—played by Jim Broadbent as a man in his 70s—Frobisher plans to write his masterpiece: a symphony he will call The Cloud Atlas Sextet. All the while he keeps in touch with his beloved Sixsmith through letters, imagining a triumphant return. But Frobisher underestimates Ayrs’ power until his situation takes a desperate turn.

“Because Frobisher is young and full of creative energy and ideas he thinks he’s manipulating Ayrs, but maybe Ayrs is manipulating him,” Whishaw hints. “It becomes a struggle over the music—Frobisher to gain recognition, and Ayrs to retain his reputation.”

Supporting the main characters in Frobisher’s saga are Halle Berry as Ayrs’ trophy wife, the stoic Jocasta, and Hugo Weaving as Ayrs’ friend, Tadeusz Kesselring, who harbors an ugly secret. Hugh Grant appears as a posh hotel staffer refusing to allow Frobisher and Sixsmith a peaceful parting, and Tom Hanks is the greedy manager of another, far seedier inn.

1973, San Francisco
Halle Berry takes the lead in 1973 as journalist Luisa Rey, who uncovers corporate corruption at a nuclear power plant that could affect thousands of lives and puts her at odds with duplicitous plant president Lloyd Hooks, played by Hugh Grant. She is aided in her investigation by the same Rufus Sixsmith of the Frobisher piece, now an elderly physicist, and by plant employee Isaac Sachs, Tom Hanks again, who is inexplicably struck by how familiar Luisa looks and how strong his impulse is to help her.

“Luisa is at a crossroads,” says Berry. “As a journalist, she feels she hasn’t quite lived up to her expectations of what that means, and then this gift falls in her lap, a major opportunity to take a risk and so something potentially significant. She really doesn’t know how tough she is or whether or not she can actually accomplish it, but once she makes that decision she will have to do things she never thought possible.”

Targeted by Hooks’ hitman Bill Smoke, played by Hugo Weaving, Luisa’s only chance to survive is to put her faith into the hands of Keith David’s character, Napier, a man officially in Hook’s employ, but who has clearly had enough of taking his orders.

David sees him, in period, as “a kind of Shaft character, so that was a frame of reference. What was exciting about it was reaching this part of the journey, where this soul you first saw as the Maori Kupaka now has more opportunities as Napier and he takes advantage of that to grow. Maybe further down the line he might be something even greater.”

Also seen on this part of the timeline are Chinese actress Xun Zhou as a male hotel worker; Korean-born Doona Bae as a Hispanic woman—a role for which Bae, already polishing English for her other roles, had to master Spanish dialogue; David Gyasi as Luisa’s father, Lester, a celebrated war correspondent who is her inspiration; and Ben Whishaw in a poignant portrayal as a record store clerk who cannot get a certain 1930s melody out of his head.

2012, England
Jim Broadbent returns in the form of small-time publisher Timothy Cavendish, who happily falls into a mound of cash when sales of his latest book—a vanity bio by the thuggish Dermot Hoggins, played with a rugged Scottish brogue by Tom Hanks—go through the roof. Unfortunately, his windfall attracts creditors, some of whom are seeking more than money.

Says Broadbent, “He goes on the run and finds what he believes is a secure place, but it turns out to be so secure that even he can’t get out of it. So it becomes an escape story where poor Cavendish has to find a way to save himself.”

Hugh Grant takes a turn as the publisher’s vengeful brother, Denholme, while Ben Whishaw is Denholme’s faithless wife, Georgette. Hugo Weaving also appears as domineering female Nurse Noakes, with whom Cavendish does battle in this piece that offers the saga’s most liberal sprinkling of comedy. Susan Sarandon portrays Cavendish’s redemptive long-lost love, Ursula; Jim Sturgess appears as a volatile Scottish football fan; James D’Arcy as a nursing home orderly; and Halle Berry as a woman who momentarily catches author Dermot Hoggins’ eye.

“Nurse Noakes was the biggest challenge for me of all the parts and also the most fun,” offers Weaving. “She’s a hideous gorgon who infantilizes and despises the residents, but it’s her who’s dead inside. She’s been in this institution for many years and I believe the place has gotten into her bones.”

2144, Neo Seoul
Doona Bae takes center stage as the fabricant Sonmi-451, genetically engineered to spend her brief existence as a compliant restaurant server in an ominously totalitarian society built atop the ruins of a flooded Seoul. Encouraged to nurture forbidden independent thoughts by sister fabricant Yoona-939, played by Xun Zhou, Sonmi embarks on a path from which there can be no retreat. With the help of revolutionary Hae-Joo Chang, portrayed by Jim Sturgess, Sonmi takes her courageous and perilous first steps toward a far-reaching insurrection.

“Yoona and Sonmi were not content with their lives. They had their own way of thinking and came to believe that things did not have to be a certain way. They wanted freedom,” says Chinese actress Zhou, making her Western film debut with “Cloud Atlas.”

Bae, likewise making her Western screen debut, acknowledges, “It’s Yoona who makes Sonmi curious about the larger human world. She wakes Sonmi up so she can think for herself, but it’s Chang, the first pureblood who is kind to her, who shows her that she can stand up for herself with dignity.”

Representing the repressors in this society are Hugh Grant as smarmy Seer Rhee, the restaurant manager who extends his authority after hours, and Hugo Weaving as Boardman Mephi, bureaucratic upholder of the status quo. Halle Berry and Susan Sarandon take on the male roles of Ovid, a doctor who removes Sonmi’s restricting collar, and Yusouf Suleiman, a scientist who champions the fabricants’ rights, while Keith David leads the resistance movement as An-Kor Apis. Tom Hanks appears as an actor in a movie depiction of the publisher Cavendish’s life, which inspires Sonmi, Jim Broadbent appears as a Korean musician, and James D’Arcy is the government Archivist tasked with recording her confession.

After the Fall, 2321 and 2346, Hawaii
Hanks last appears as the damaged but fundamentally decent goatherd Zachry, one of a peaceful tribe that survived a planetary cataclysm that plunged most of humanity into a primitive way of life. Among the remnants of their cultural past is an image of Sonmi, who has taken on goddess stature, and whose words are cited by Susan Sarandon, playing the village Abbess.

For this world, author Mitchell reached into the future for an imagined dialect in the form of an unadorned, shorthand communication. The directors retained this language and worked with the cast in a Los Angeles recording studio prior to shooting, to ensure it would translate on screen.

“We settled on a language that was simply stripped-down English, using minimal words to convey feelings,” states Halle Berry, who appears in the segment as Meronym, an emissary of an advanced human community called Prescients. Adopting the pidgin dialect to gain his trust, Meronym seeks Zachry’s aid to locate something she desperately needs. But to help her, Zachry must not only put his life at risk and deny everything he believes in, but quell the doubts inside that speak to him through the taunting voice of Hugo Weaving’s character, Old Georgie.

Xun Zhou appears as Zachry’s sister, Rose, Jim Sturgess as his brother-in-law, Adam, and Ben Whishaw as a fellow tribesman. Hugh Grant takes his most spectacularly evil turn as the Kona Chief, leader of a marauding band of cannibal warriors, while Keith David, David Gyasi and Jim Broadbent are counted among the enlightened Prescients.

Addressing how the life cycle of his roles reaches its nadir here, Grant observes, “Clearly the potential is there for souls to improve—and some do, dramatically, but some don’t. They never get better. They get worse. It all comes down to free will and the choices we make.”