Tenet – Film Review – Nolan’s back and forth time thriller pushes the art of storytelling forward
Most directors have a particular passion that’ll shine through in their films. Director Christopher Nolan’s is time, which will be no surprise to any fans of his work: Memento, Dunkirk and Interstellar have all explicitly dabbled in time, not just in terms of the film world but the way in which the story is told and how we perceive it. Tenet, Nolan’s latest, feels like a culmination of that project, an ambitious blockbuster that uses time to tell a complex story that will test your attention to detail, all while delivering time-bending set pieces that run at what feels like 88mph.
As with any Nolan film, Tenet is best seen with fresh eyes, so I’ll try to keep the plot synopsis to a minimum. To summarise, Tenet follows a nameless character credited as The Protagonist (John David Washington), who is given an assignment: to stop a Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from destroying the world as we know it. Sounds like a Bond movie right? Except Sator has a unique power at his disposal: he has the ability to invert time so that it runs in reverse.
This concept of time inversion, advertised heavily in various trailers, lies at the heart of the film and your enjoyment of Tenet will rest on your willingness to accept it. Nolan’s script doesn’t explain it cleanly and multiple viewings almost feel like a medical recommendation. But we are assured early on that if we don’t get it, it’s no issue: like The Protagonist, you just need to understand what time inversion does.
That’s where Nolan comes in, using visual innovations to tell a fascinating story that runs in different directions. The staging of set pieces here, for example, is simply astonishing, with Nolan almost taking on the role of God, manipulating how we expect to see things play out.
A corridor fight is easily the film’s highlight. A clash between The Protagonist and a masked thug is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, choreographed to perfection, as our hero has to tussle with someone moving backwards in time. As he throws a punch, the thug’s arm moves backwards, the punch he’s already thrown returning to deliver the Protagonist a surprise blow. Remember, you can think of the how, but what you’re seeing is what Nolan cares about: this is a blockbuster, for your eyes and for your ears.
John David Washington gives a remarkably assured performance that makes the movie; without him, Tenet would collapse under the weight of its ambitions
Those ears will be tested in Tenet: Nolan’s infamous bass booms like a nuclear bomb in the theatre. The sound design here, combined with Ludwig Göransson’s synth-heavy score, practically begs for a big screen, even though the mixing can lead to some dialogue being lost, particularly during scenes where our characters have their faces covered (you won’t feel awkward with a mask on throughout – Tenet’s characters are wearing them constantly).
That dialogue, despite its complexity, is delivered with real energy by a cast that’s game for both stuntwork and physics lectures. Yes, Tenet does fail the exposition test. But Robert Pattinson and Washington are so engaging as the leads that you’ll forgive the philosophical monologues.
Washington, in particular, is a revelation in this. Like with DiCaprio in Inception, it isn’t a performance for the Oscar reels. It’s one that demands subtlety. And yet, it’s absolutely essential for the success of the film. Washington brilliantly balances his role as an individual that wants to do right by the world, with a role as the vehicle for the audience to experience time inversion and the way it ticks. He’s charismatic, committed to the fight choreography and excels in expressing minor details that bring this inverted world to life.
Tenet’s world is a new and exciting playground for Nolan to act as both puppet and ringmaster. He dictates the chaotic action with painstaking attention to realism, even purchasing a genuine airliner just to crash it into a building in a scene that Michael Bay will probably play to help him sleep. But Nolan also uses his time inversion concept to play around with the way a story can be told, testing the limits of our relationship with film narrative.
Tenet is a film to settle on: enjoy the spectacle and ponder on the how after. You will surprise yourself on how much you’re able to absorb and take away from the experience.
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