25th Aug2020

‘Tenet’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, Martin Donovan | Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan

“Don’t try to understand it”, says a character near the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s brain bending sci-fi blockbuster Tenet. That turns out to be excellent advice for audiences, because after it’s all over, there’s a sneaking suspicion that maybe the plot doesn’t quite add up and perhaps you’d better see it again, just to make sure. It’s a shrewd strategy that will guarantee repeat business in these troubled times.

Tenet centres on The Protagonist (BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington), a skilled secret agent who’s recruited for a complex mission involving a device that allows objects and people to change the direction they travel through time. In the hands of the wrong people – in this case evil Russian oligarch-slash-arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) – the device could lead to World War III or the end of the world, so it’s up to the Protagonist and his laid back British handler Neil (Robert Pattinson) to foil Sator’s plans as swiftly as possible.

To do so, they’ll need to recruit Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who’s already bitter and resentful towards her abusive husband because he’s threatening to keep her from seeing her young son. In true James Bond fashion, the pursuit of the device takes the central characters to a variety of globe-trotting locations, from Oslo and India to Russia and the Bay of Naples.

Reviewing Tenet is a frustrating experience because the various plot directions – and their attendant surprises – are a large part of the fun. Suffice it to say that, as indicated by the palindromic title, Nolan (who also wrote the script) takes the concept of objects and people moving backwards through time and turns it into a series of mind boggling set-pieces, from a stunning car chase to a lengthy fight scene and an inspired sequence involving bungee jumping. Imaginatively conceived and staged, these scenes are genuinely thrilling and undoubtedly the main reason to see Tenet.

The film looks stunning too, courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema’s crisp cinematography and some impressively chosen location work, as well as the utter gorgeousness of the suits worn by the main characters (Jeffrey Kurland is surely a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination – either way, he won’t want for future job opportunities).

However, Tenet does have its fair share of problems. For one thing, the dialogue is so impenetrable that you suspect even the actors don’t fully understand it. On a similar note, all the characters deliver their dialogue in the same brisk, flat tone, which strips the film of any emotional connection it might otherwise have had. This is, admittedly, a common complaint with Nolan’s films, but it’s especially detrimental here as it prevents emotional investment in the characters.

In addition, at a bottom-numbing 150 minutes, the film is a good twenty minutes too long. In particular there are several military shoot out scenes that seem to go on forever and could easily have been cut down. On top of everything else, the film isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, and anyone familiar with time-bending genre movies (e.g. Timecrimes) will have some idea of what to expect from the twists, despite the originality of the basic concept.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether a second viewing of Tenet will prove rewarding or doubly frustrating. Either way, the film is unquestionably worth seeing on the big screen, delivering satisfying blockbuster spectacle in achingly beautiful style, even it all falls apart when you’re discussing it afterwards.

***½  3.5/5

Tenet is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.


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